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Pipeline protests turn violent as aggressive police tactics questioned

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By Thursday, Nov 2, 2017 News 14

Great Barrington — A series of peaceful protests started earlier this year against the Tennessee Gas Company’s Connecticut Expansion Project in the Otis State Forest have turned violent in recent days, with protesters acting more provocatively and police using tactics normally reserved for confrontations.

One recent incident occurred Wednesday, October 25, during a planned “Earth Dance” event involving members of the anti-pipeline Sugar Shack Alliance and a group of indigenous “water protectors,” so called because they travel the country to fight against pipeline projects that hinder access to water such as the Standing Rock, an Native American reservation in North Dakota where there were protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline during which police attacked peaceful protesters.

Karla Colon-Aponte at the Oct. 23 protest at TD Bank in Great Barrington. Photo: Ben Hillman

After the incident in Sandisfield on October 25, one protester, Karla Colon-Aponte, was charged two days later with assault and battery on a police officer after a confrontation in the state forest with Massachusetts State Police Trooper Jeff McDonald, who violently shoved Colon-Aponte to the ground and pinned her there with his knee on her chest.

McDonald maintains that Colon-Aponte swung her arm at him in an effort to push him away as he was trying to move her out of a security perimeter the police were trying to establish. However, in the video, there was no indication that Colon-Aponte had done so in the seconds before she was pushed to the ground.

“I started moving backwards and he kept shoving me,” Colon-Aponte said in an interview. “There was no need.”

Colon-Aponte insists she was not rude to McDonald and that as she tried to exit the scene as directed, the trooper kept shoving her as she was walking away. She added that, “It felt to me that no matter how far I went, it wouldn’t be enough.”

“I don’t remember hitting his hand. If I did, it wasn’t on purpose,” Colon-Aponte said. “He said there is body cam footage. I’d like to look at it.”

Massachusetts State Police confront a demonstrator in the Otis State Forest on Wednesday. Photo courtesy Sugar Shack Alliance

McDonald could not be reached for comment but Massachusetts State Police spokesman David Procopio sent the Edge the following statement:

“We will review the entire record of our interaction with Ms. Colon-Aponte that day, including not only the events depicted on the video but also any actions, interaction and conduct, by anyone involved, prior to and after what is seen on the video. We additionally will review written reports and the offenses with which she is charged. We will provide an update once that review is completed.”

Asked whether she was afraid or felt violated by the incident, Colon-Aponte replied, “I was water cannoned in 20-degree weather at Standing Rock. I’ve been through worse.”

Four other water protectors were charged along with Colon-Aponte for lesser offenses than hers. The charges ranged from disorderly conduct to resisting arrest. Not-guilty pleas were entered for the defendants in Southern Berkshire District Court Oct. 26 by Judge William Rota. Colon-Aponte said she has been told to reappear in court Thursday, Dec. 7, to face the charges. She plans to have an attorney at that time.

Massachusetts State Police were out in force yesterday at the Otis State Forest in Sandisfield. Three more arrests were made. Photo courtesy Sugar Shack Alliance

On Monday morning (Oct. 23), scores of activists turned out to kick off a “week of resistance” to the Connecticut Expansion Pipeline in the Otis State Forest in Sandisfield.

In solidarity with Divest the Globe, indigenous Water Protectors and Sugar Shack Alliance activists and others conducted a resistance week in advance of the flow of fracked gas through the pipeline, which energy giant Kinder Morgan began Nov. 1.

The groups hosted what they call a “divestment action” at the Great Barrington TD Bank branch on Main Street. Click here to see filmmaker Ben Hillman’s Edgecast of that event.

Yesterday there was another confrontation near the pipeline construction area on Beech Plain Road in Sandisfield between police and protesters in which three more arrests were made. Sugar Shack said police brought dogs and used a stun gun.

Police vehicles were there along with an ambulance. Some of the protesters wore zombie outfits and sported signs saying “Poison Gas,” “People Over Pipelines” and “Fracked Gas Kills.”

Demonstrators, including nearby property owner Sue Baxter in sunglasses, stand their ground Wednesday in Sandisfield’s Otis State Forest. Photo courtesy Sugar Shack Alliance

This afternoon, State Police issued a news release (below in italics) on yesterday’s incident. It has been edited for clarity and style:

Three people were arrested yesterday at the site of the Tennessee Gas pipeline project in the Otis State Forest in Sandisfield, two for refusing orders to move out of the way of construction vehicles and the third for assaulting two troopers who attempted to apprehend him after he trespassed on private property.

Arrested were: Jacob Renner, 24, of Sharon, Conn., charged with two counts of assault and battery on a police officer, trespassing, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct; Max S. Bambery, 31, of Lenox, charged with disorderly conduct; and Priscilla A. Lynch, 65, of Conway, charged with disorderly conduct.

At approximately 1 p.m. yesterday Renner and another man trespassed onto 114 South Beech Plain Road, private property near the project site that was clearly marked No Trespassing. The owner of the property has previously made clear that he does not want protestors on his property.

When asked to leave the property by a private security officer, Renner and the other man refused. Troopers responded to the location and observed the men walking down the driveway on the property, behind the no trespassing signs. Troopers observed that Renner had his hands in his pockets. He refused to remove his hands from his pockets despite being asked to do so several times, raising concerns that he may have had a weapon.

A trooper then instructed another trooper on-scene to place Renner under arrest, at which point he ran along South Beach Road in an attempt to flee. When troopers ran after him and attempted to cut him off, he shoved two of them, knocking one off balance and the other to the ground, and then continued to struggle with them in an attempt to get free.

As a trooper drew his issued electronic control weapon and, as Renner continued to struggle, the trooper deployed one set of probes into the suspect’s back and buttocks in accordance with departmental policy. The deployment of the probes momentarily ended the struggle, but after several seconds the suspect regained mobility, pulled the probes free, and continued to struggle.

Troopers then got the suspect under control and placed him in custody. During a search of Renner, a trooper located a knife on his belt. Renner initially refused to give his name and date of birth despite several requests to do so. He was evaluated by an ambulance crew and refused treatment. After being transported to the Berkshire County jail for processing, Renner was given his Miranda rights. He continued to refuse to provide his identity for several hours.

The other man who had trespassed onto the property with Renner fled into the woods and was not located.

At approximately 1:50 p.m., troopers responded to South Beech Plain Road near the project site where 30 to 40 protesters were blocking the road, shouting, and chanting. The protesters were blocking the path of a large, heavy-load dump truck. A trooper in her cruiser attempted to escort the truck through the protestors. Many of them moved out of the way, but several of them – some dressed in black robes and white masks – cut between the cruiser and the truck. The trooper got out of her cruiser and asked these protestors to move out of the road, and the all refused. The trooper believed these protestors were putting themselves in danger given their proximity to the huge Euclid model dump truck.

Other MSP personnel responded and instructed the protestors to allow vehicles to move freely on the road, and noted that if they did not do so, they risked being arrested. Eventually, most protestors walked out of the road, but Bambery and Lynch refused to do so and were arrested. They were also brought to the Berkshire County jail, advised of their Miranda rights, and booked.

All three defendants had court appearances today.

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14 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Tom S. says:

    That SLO-MO was really necessary.

  2. peter greer says:

    “One protester, Karla Colon-Aponte, was charged two days later with assault and battery on a police officer ” The system responds and it’s not pretty.

  3. Patrice Farrell says:

    I believe there are many of us against Fracking and the Pipeline, a silent majority…Look what happens with peaceful protests. Outrageous! Tainted water the resulting issue with pumping that gas. Bless the Water Protectors!

  4. Cynthia LaPier says:

    Tensions are running high, but that is no excuse for the trooper’s behavior. He clearly reacted emotionally and violently. Unacceptable.

  5. AJ says:

    That state trooper’s behavior is disgusting!!! Absolutely no reason! Thanks for the video.

  6. peter greer says:

    Not only is the troopers behavior inappropriate and far more violent then the situation required but note they they are charging Ms Aponte …
    I’d like to see our local and state representatives weigh in on this.

  7. Baruch says:

    The trooper(s) in question should be fired and lose their pensions. Police brutality is unacceptable. No ifs ands or buts.

  8. Peter Murkett says:

    Thanks to The Edge for making this outrage visible. Let’s make sure that State Senator Hinds and Representative Pignatelli hear about this incident and its legal consequences loud and clear. It must not be met with silence.

  9. Anni crofut says:

    Police, (who it is possible are doing a job here that they would rather not have to do) should do everything they can to avoid generating anger and hatred towards them. The ‘enemy’ here is the pipeline, not the police. But this is a perfect example of how the police become conflated with corporate greed and ‘the establishment.” Police should try their hardest in this scenario to treat the protesters humanely. That violence was completely unnecessary and confirmed all stereotypes about police brutality. Watching the video it looks like he just could not resist pushing her down.

  10. John Breasted says:

    I found it disturbing to see the video excerpt showing the state policeman appearing to bring down Karla Colon-Aponte violently in the recent pipeline protest in Sandisfield, but not surprising.

    Natural resource extraction around the world is habitually associated with much more disturbing state-sponsored and corporate-sponsored violence (including murder) that makes the violence reported in this November 2 Edge story seem like a Sunday school picnic by comparison. We live in an unusual corner of the world where there are significant cultural and legal restraints on our police (except in the poor and minority neighborhoods of our cities, like Pittsfield).

    The larger context of such violence is summarized in one academic paper in this way:

    “The authors conclude that the natural resource base on which industrial societies stand is constructed in large part through the use and threatened use of armed violence. As a result, armed violence plays a critical role in fostering environmental degradation and ecological unequal exchange.”

    In their recent acts of public witness in Sandisfield and at the Great Barrington office of TD Bank, the pipeline protesters have performed a valuable public service by calling public attention to the environmental consequences of our society’s collective greed for energy.

    But it is important to remember that we are all complicit in the creation of the aggregate demand that stems from that greed, and to remember that the ironclad laws of thermodynamics will teach us that there are really no clean, sustainable, dependably abundant sources of energy, including wind, solar, and hydro power.

    Our species will have to learn to live on a much lower per-capita energy budget, and to stop desecrating the landscape with wind turbines and solar arrays. Over the long term, our planet probably cannot support the current human population of 7.6 billion.

    On a more local level, I would like to see ten questions addressed by Governor Baker, his state police superintendent, Representative Pignatelli, State Senator Hinds, our town officials, and our regional news media (on behalf of all citizens), related to the recent protests and scuffles with state police near the pipeline project in the Otis State Forest:

    1) When state police are paid to do private duty in situations like the protests in or near the Otis State Forest, to whom or to what entity is their primary loyalty?

    2) Is the primary function of the police in such situations to a) protect corporate operations and property, or b) to strive to keep the peace?

    3) When these two missions of the police come into conflict, to which one do the governor, our legislators, and our town officials expect the police to give a higher priority?

    4) Are the public expectations of our publicly sworn police in these situations different when they are being paid privately?

    5) Who in local and state governments makes the decision to hire out public police to a corporation like Kinder Morgan to augment the police who are working on the public dime? The same question applies to the recent decisions of Pittsfield and Dalton officials to hire out their officers for a total of $29,000 for private service to Berkshire Health Systems during last month’s strike and lockout of nurses at Berkshire Medical Center.

    6) Who decides how many officers will be working privately for the corporation and how many publicly for the taxpayers, in a given protest or strike situation?

    7) What are the criteria for making such a decision? Are there applicable statutes, state regulations, or town and city ordinances?

    8) If a protester or a police officer is injured in a physical confrontation while the officer is on the corporate dime, how will liability be allocated, for the cost of treating the injuries?

    9) If an officer or protester is injured while the officer is being paid by the taxpayers on a mission to protect corporate interests, which entity gets stuck with the medical bills and the payment of a successful subsequent claim by the officer or protester for compensatory damages: The corporation or the taxpayers?

    10) When Kinder Morgan or BHS pays publicly sworn police officers to augment private security guards, to whom are the officers accountable – to a corporate boss or to their taxpayer paid commanders whose bosses are our elected officials?

    To all who read these questions: I encourage you to ask them of Governor Baker, Smitty Pignatelli, Adam Hinds and of your town officials.

  11. Anni Crofut says:

    Thank you John for these extremely pointed questions, and for the incisive and accurate points you make preceding them. I very much appreciate the clarity with which you have articulated your concerns and questions.

  12. Mike says:

    I’m surprised she didn’t get tased, like the 160 pound guy at the demonstration last week. Police and their power trips are out of control. I like how the two staties tried to block videotaping once she hit the ground.

  13. steven smith says:

    The slo motion does not show her right hand and arm. She twisted, her right shoulder moving back, indicatinghwhat would be an attempt to brush off the trooper, accompanied with the dont touch me statement, if she made contact(which your video cannot see) yet MSP claim the body cam supports, then she got what she asked for. As usual , people react to video the media wants you to see without digestinf the whole picture. Demonstrate if you will, do not block access.

  14. Bob Connors/SNYFGP co-founder says:

    The overriding issue to be considered is that pollution from the fracking process, its transmission, disposal, compression and storage invisibly emit many carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins. Renewable energy, conservation an efficiency do not damage our health or that of the planet. Anyone committed to last century’s fossil fuels are dooming one’s children, grandchildren, if not oneself, and the earth’s creatures to an unsustainable life.

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