Yesterday in Palm Beach County, seven environmental activists were sentenced for trespassing, unlawful assembly, and resisting arrest without violence. Two of them -- Panagioti Tsoklas and Lynne Purvis -- got jail time. Tsolkas, 60 days; Purvis, 30 days. As several of their supporters pointed out, the sentence is unusually harsh for a misdemeanor case.
The charges were related to a February 2008 protest, when a few dozen protesters gathered at the site of FPL's new power plant, the West County Energy Center. They alleged that the plant would harm the environment and that it was built on shady political deals and dirty maneuvering by a giant corporation. The protestors, who chained themselves together, were met by scores of cops in riot gear, and a contingent of K-9 dogs.
Whatever one thinks about the protesters and their cause (are they environmental heroes sounding an alarm before it's too late? Or radical hippies against progress?), I find their court case alarming. Having written a story about the plant, I went to one of the trials for four of the people who were arrested on that day.
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I was stunned that a jury found the protesters guilty of unlawful assembly, since "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" is a key component of the First Amendment. I was also a little surprised that the jury nailed them on the trespassing charge -- because in court, at least at the trial I attended (there were three or four trials), even the prosecution conceded that the "no trespassing" signs were not in the correct place, at the property line. As for the third charge -- resisting arrest without violence -- well, the protesters explained that when arrested, they made their bodies go limp precisely because they did not want to later be accused of pulling or fighting against the officers. And still, they got charged with resisting.
Some 40 police officers showed up in court to shed crocodile tears about how they were distracted from their very important job of protecting the public so that they could stand watch at the protest. (Ironically, it was no problem for the lot of them to leave the streets and hang out at the courthouse all day waiting to testify months later.) This posturing of big, bad, armed police officers needing to save the world from scraggly environmentalists would be funny if it weren't so scary. The only thing being protected here was FPL's profits.
What struck me was that all the jurors I spoke with felt that the plant will harm the environment and that the protestors were right in bringing attention to a matter that was under-publicized. Although the jurors could have let the protestors go because they presented a "necessity defense" (arguing they had to break the law in order to prevent the greater harm, like when a person has to trespass in order to put out a fire) they convicted them instead.
Make no bones about it: The police are familiar with Tsolkas, Purvis and company, who have been putting on mischievous -- but ultimately harmless -- acts of civil disobedience for years. But in my view, the police reaction was a show of force designed to quash public dissent. Sadly, the jurors took the police bait hook, line, and sinker.