NEW YORK CITY – On Friday, March 6, #Flood11, as they have been labeled, were found not guilty of disorderly conduct. The ruling not only vindicated the activists, declaring that their actions were within their rights as citizens, but it also set a striking legal precedent. The court openly recognized climate change as a legitimate threat.On Sept. 21, the U.S witnessed the largest organized march against climate change. For most, the People’s Climate March in New York City, which included an estimated 310,000 people from all walks of life, ended that same day with rallies at 34th street. However, for a smaller group, the protests continued the very next day.
On Monday, Sept. 22, an estimated 3,000 activists descended on Wall Street to “highlight the role of capitalism in fueling the climate crisis,” as report by Reuters. This protest was known as “Flood Wall Street.”
During a span of eight hours, the police made 102 total arrests. According to Reuters, “Demonstrators tried to push back metal barricades that police had used to keep them away, an effort that ended when police turned pepper spray on the crowd … Police later broke up the gathering, ordering remaining protesters to disband.” When several dozen refused to leave, the police “handcuffed and walked them away one-by-one.”According to an NYULocal report, the 102 people arrested were each charged with two counts of disorderly conduct and spent the night in jail. Most of the activists eventually accepted a plea bargain, in which the city dropped the charges if they agreed to not cause any further civic unrest. However, 11 of the activists did not accept the city’s proposal. They adamantly defended their right to protest, “on the grounds that their actions were necessary based on the imminent harm climate change poses.” The #Flood11, as they became known, pleaded “not guilty,” sending the case to trial. High Priestess Krystle Star, also known as Krystle Holmes, is one of the #Flood11. She said:
I got involved in Flood Wall Street when friends invited me to help with an environmental art-making project at Mayday Space, which is an “open space” created for artists and activists to work, create and hold meetings. I found myself there multiple times a week after that. It was so inspiring to see people working around the clock to save the planet, not only making beautiful art, but actively fighting climate change from every angle.
Originally from Maryland, Star and her family formed the Kensington Park Coven. She identifies as a “Pagan and Solopsist, non-binary, feminist.” Several years ago, she moved to New York City but she still celebrates Beltane and Samhain with her family and the Fireflies, based in Washington D.C.
During the People’s Climate March, Star walked with the Flood Wall Street contingent. They carried a banner reading, “CAPITALISM = CLIMATE CHAOS.” The next day, she joined the core group to protest on Wall Street. She said:
It’s very positive that many people accept a personal responsibility to lower their footprint by doing things like recycling and taking public transportation. But we must all acknowledge that there are powerful companies who are only concerned with short-term profits, and will destroy the planet if we don’t fight back. We have a responsibility, as citizens of this planet, to not only ‘do no harm’ but to also protect our people and planet by taking action against those who do harm. It is our responsibility to ensure the well-being of future generations, and survival of our planet.
Along with the 101 other protesters, she refused to disperse when ordered to do so by police. As noted in a press release, the group was “arrested for sitting in the street at the intersection of Broadway and Wall.” After she and the other members of #Flood11 pleaded “not guilty,” they looked for support in the community. They established a change.org petition and eventually a Facebook Event Page called “#FloodWallStreet Court Support!”
As explained on the petition site, their defense was partly based on necessity:
[The #Flood11 defendants] assert that their actions are justified under the New York State law that governs the necessity defense. This is based on the fact that the injury they sought to prevent – runaway global warming and the destabilizing of the Earth’s climate system – is both 1.) An immanent and growing threat to the very future of our planet and of human civilization and 2.) Vastly greater than any harm that was done by their refusal to end their sit-in at Broadway and Wall Streets.
When the court date finally arrived March 2, supporters gathered outside New York’s Criminal Court wearing blue to demonstrate solidarity. Ten of the 11 original activists were there. After the first day in court, Star and fellow activist said:
Monday was a busy opening day in our trial. The day’s first order of business saw the prosecutor drop one of the two disorderly conduct charges for obstructing vehicular traffic, as video evidence has clearly shown there was no traffic flowing at the time of our arrest. The remaining charge in question is whether we failed to obey a lawful order, and whether the order to disperse was in fact lawful. We are arguing that since the police were ordering us to walk away from Wall Street or face arrest, that their order violated our First Amendment free speech rights.
The trial lasted a total of four days. Late Mar. 5, Judge Robert Mandelbaum exonerated the 10 protestors, declaring them not guilty of disorderly conduct. According to reports, the Judge did “reject the necessity defense,” stating that “the threat posed by global warming remains too vague and abstract for defense of justification to apply.”
However, as noted in a Flood Wall Street press release, Judge Mandelbaum did find “that the NYPD’s order to disperse was unlawful, and that by ordering protesters to leave the entire Wall Street area, police violated protesters’ First Amendment right to carry their message directly to its intended recipients: the Wall Street bankers who bankroll climate change.”Star told The Wild Hunt that she was “excited that we won.” But she was also quick to point out the legal precedent set by the court’s decision. Despite the rejection of the necessity defense, Star said, “The court [did] declare climate change to be an irrefutable scientific fact. Judge Mandlebaum cited numerous times that climate change is dire and urgent action is required. This can be cited in future cases against dirty energy companies, or in favor of climate activists.”
Defense attorney Martin Stolar agreed, saying, “The importance of judicial notice is that the judge accepted climate change and the need to do something about it as a fact without the necessity of any evidentiary support or proof at trial … To the best of my knowledge, this is unprecedented and has significance for future litigation involving climate change.”
It is unclear how much of a impact this ruling will have on future cases or how it will affect the the growing global movement against climate change. However, for now, the ruling has strengthened the legitimacy of the activists’ claims and brought significant hope that change, within the system and to the system, may be possible.