Last Thursday, a data entry specialist, high-end eyeglass saleswoman, disabled U.S. Army veteran and seven other defendants walked into a New York City courtroom. Hours later, they walked out not guilty. The reason why, however, is more surprising than you might thing.
As The Indypendent co-founder and executive editor turned-defendant John Tarleton told Waging Nonviolence, “We fought the law and we won.”
The “Flood Wall Street 10,” as they’re known, were arrested at the tail end of a momentous (three-day) weekend for the climate movement. The day before, on September 21, an estimated 410,000 people had gathered on the edge of Central Park for the People’s Climate March. Separated out into massive blocs, marchers represented the various constituencies affected by the climate crisis — namely, everyone: students, labor, faith groups, scientists and more.
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Leading the march off was a massive contingent entitled “Frontlines of Crisis, Forefront of Change,” communities and organizations dealing with and resisting the worst impacts of climate change and extraction. Many work with the Climate Justice Alliance, some taking the subway from Far Rockaway, Queens and others trekking in from the Bay Area and Black Mesa, Arizona. As I wrote in September, the People’s Climate March represented a shift in the movement’s mainstream narrative: taking leadership from the frontlines, and naming, in one way or another, capitalism as the problem.
The next day, Flood Wall Street — organized largely by veterans of Occupy Wall Street — sought to drive that message home. The idea was to quite literally “flood” New York’s financial mecca with protesters wearing blue, sending a defiant message to the bankers and hedge fund managers that have driven the country and world headfirst into ecological and economic catastrophe. Full blocks of blue-clad demonstrators could be heard singing, in near unison, “I hear the voice of my great grand-daughter saying shut down Wall Street now.”
While they did just that, having made the New York Police Department cordon off the infamous street itself, protest organizers had expected the police to issue dispersal orders in the first several moments of the so-called flood. Participants had been prepared for arrest in a Battery Park gathering hours earlier, where they were told to pre-determine the level of risk they were willing to take.
As minutes and then hours went by, though, it started to look as if those warnings would never come. Still, the action had brought thousands to a major root of the crisis, and attracted enthusiastic media attention to both the problem — Wall Street — and the solution: a popular movement. Declaring the action a success, organizers called an end to the flood before dusk, leaving it up to protesters on whether to stay or go.
One hundred and two demonstrators chose to remain seated at the corner of Broad Street and Wall Street, and defy the NYPD’s eventual arrest orders issued later that night. The vast majority of arrestees, charged with disorderly conduct, later chose not to go to trial and take what’s known as an adjournment in contemplation, a promise from New York’s court system to take the case off the books if they are not arrested again in the next six months.
Martin Stolar and Jonathan Wallace provided legal assistance to the remaining 10 through the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Committee in New York City. Their defense, which spanned four days, rested on two points. The first, as Tarleton said, was that “there is no expiration time on the first amendment.” Stolar and Wallace argued that after the police had allowed protesters to occupy Broadway for eight hours, it became a constitutionally protected protest and subsequent orders from the NYPD to leave the area therefore violated protesters’ first amendment rights.
The second point was a more creative legal tactic known as the Necessity of Defense. Used by “Bidder 70” Tim Dechristopher, as well as by the “Lobster Boat Blockade” last year, necessity of defense (or “Justification” in New York state) asserts, in these cases, that the urgency of extraction and climate change renders otherwise illegal acts of protest lawful. The legal statute, Stolar explained, is contingent on proving that “the conduct that you’re trying to avoid is so imminent and urgent, and it is necessary to take the action that you have to avoid the greater harm.”
Perhaps more important than this strategy’s capacity to exonerate defendants is the public assertion that protest and civil disobedience are necessary to defend the planet and the people living on it.
Tarleton, 47, spent the summer of 2014 pulling together two special climate justice-themed issues of The Indypendent, each a prelude of sorts to the weekend’s events. Over the years, Tarleton and the New York monthly he co-founded, have covered the climate movement extensively. After preparing for the march weekend as a writer and editor, he decided to join in on the action in the streets.
“For someone like myself who’d been concerned about climate change for a quarter century,” he reflected, “it felt right to be there and to say that we’re not walking away from this.”
Although the defendants were found not guilty, Judge Robert Mandelbaum rejected the necessity of defense argument on a relative technicality regarding the state’s definition of “emergency.” He did, however, make the “unprecedented” decision to take judicial notice of the fact that climate change is a serious problem, according to Stolar. Mandelbaum told the 10 and their council that they “didn’t even have to prove that there [is] a serious climate change problem … and that it need[s] to be addressed with some immediacy.”
Combined with his acceptance of the defendants’ argument regarding the first amendment, Judge Mandelbaum affirmed the legality and even necessity of protest, ruling the NYPD’s dispersal order unlawful. Tarleton is hopeful about what the verdict could mean for future protests: “Winning is always exciting,” he said, “and we hope that people will be inspired to take action; be bold and be smart, and believe that it’s possible to fight the system and win, even if in small degrees at first.”