WILMINGTON — A New Castle County Justice of the Peace found 11 of 15 climate activists guilty of disorderly conduct and civil unrest Friday related to a protest outside J.P. Morgan Chase Bank in Wilmington on the morning of June 28.
For several hours, the group of senior citizens protested on the steps of the building and the sidewalk before some moved to the middle of North Walnut Street with rocking chairs, sitting in the flow of traffic to direct attention to the climate change crisis and Chase Bank’s funding of fossil fuels.
Two of the 15 were represented by a lawyer and were acquitted due to lack of evidence against them in a stipulation.
All of the accused were offered a plea deal of a $10 fine, according to a release from the Walk for Our Grandchildren movement. Two protesters took the plea deal because they were unable to make the trial.
The 11 who were found guilty were given a $25 fine, plus fees and assessments, which brought their total to $97 each
They all received probation before judgment. If they don’t violate any other Delaware Title 11 laws in the next six months, the charges will get cleared from their record
“The fact that they are so eager to get rid of us has strengthened our commitment to raising the Choice of Evils defense under Delaware law: that we took action (peacefully sitting in the street in our rocking chairs) to try to head off catastrophe,” the statement said.
The Choice of Evils defense, Title 11, Delaware Criminal Code, Chapter 4, No. 463, says that “an offense is justifiable when it is necessary as an emergency measure to avoid an imminent public or private injury which is about to occur by reason of a situation occasioned or developed through no fault of the defendant, and which is of such gravity that, according to ordinary standards of intelligence and morality, the desirability and urgency of avoiding such injury clearly outweigh the desirability of avoiding the injury sought to be prevented by the statute defining the offense in issue.”
Wilmington Police Department Cpl. Israel Santiago spoke for the prosecution and said that the defendants’ actions caused “annoyance and alarm.”
According to the Delaware Criminal Code, disorderly conduct is defined as any behavior that “intentionally causes public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm to any other person,” including obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic and refusing to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse.
“‘Imminent,’ as defined by the statute, does not parallel the defendants’ mission for their cause,” Justice Kerry Taylor said. “In fact, the defendants’ actions caused an imminent circumstance, and thankfully no one was injured.”
Steve Norris, a defendant representing himself, suggested that there are greater disturbances that block traffic unexpectedly, and believes their protest was not as severe as the state alleges, and is certainly no match for the disturbance that climate change will have if direct action doesn’t happen soon.
Despite the loss, the seniors said that fighting the charges was meaningful, although the plea deal would have been far more convenient, especially for some like Mr. Norris, who traveled several hours from North Carolina for the trial.
“I’m very disappointed and angry for all kinds of reasons because at some point, the courts in this country have to wake up to the fact that the earth is in danger,” Mr. Norris said. “What is it going to take for courts to recognize that? For the court to recognize that would put pressure on Chase Bank and other fossil fuel companies and alert them to the fact that this is an emergency and things have to change.”
The defendants took a humane approach to their defense, not so much focused on the technicalities of the laws, but drawing attention to a larger picture.
Witness statements from Dr. Alan Greenglass, former senior vice president of ChristianaCare, attested to the negative effects of climate change on human health. He said that burning fossil fuels directly contributes to air pollution, which in turn exacerbates lung, heart and liver diseases that take the lives of over nine million people per year.
“We know that there is a cancer cluster in Delaware,” Dr. Greenglass said. “When the state investigated … soot from coal-burning coming down from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland was the major culprit.”
Melinda Tuhus, another pro se defendant who also presented testimony as a witness, shared facts from the Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this year. The report asserts that it is indisputable that human influence has caused all the warming in the global system that has occurred since pre-industrial times. Ms. Tuhus also added that, so far, commitments from countries at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland are severely insufficient.
“I took action by peacefully, partially blocking the street for a short time on June 28, which was a very minor inconvenience, in order to prevent an even worse harm, which is runaway climate change that will greatly impact all life on earth and is funded by J.P. Morgan Chase Bank,” she said.
Jane Diefenbach, another pro se defendant who also presented testimony as a witness, shared information from the 2021 Banking on Climate Chaos Report, which says that J.P. Morgan Chase Bank contributes the most money out of any other bank in the world to fossil fuel investments.
The final witness, Carolyn McCoy, is a member of Earthquaker Action Team, a nonviolent grass-roots organization fighting climate change. Ms. McCoy testified to the success of her own climate action group, which caused significant disruption for PNC Bank executives for several years by preventing shareholder meetings, setting up protests outside of different locations, and even organizing a 200-mile walk from Philadelphia to PNC Bank headquarters in Pittsbburgh.
The bank announced in 2015 that they would no longer finance coal companies that rely on mountaintop removal coal mining for more than 25% of their production.
In their closing statements, several defendants asked Judge Kerry to, metaphorically, grab a rocking chair and join them in the fight against climate change by acquitting the charges.
“We all feel a bit deflated,” defendant Andy Hinz said. “I was hoping she would at least make a general statement in support of what we did.”
“She said we did it out of passion, but that’s not why we did this,” Mr. Norris said. “Of course we have passion but we did it because it is a strategic move and a very well thought out plan. It was not just because we’re ‘crazy, passionate, out of control’ in our feelings about climate change.”