Ten activists who blocked traffic near Wall Street last September to protest the financial industry’s investments in fossil fuels were found not guilty yesterday by a New York City judge. Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Robert Mandelbaum found the ten not guilty of disobeying a lawful order. He held that because the police order for them to disperse had demanded that they leave the entire Wall Street area, it violated their First Amendment right to assemble peaceably. But he rejected their attempt to claim a “necessity defense,” their argument that they had broken the law to prevent an imminent and greater harm, the environmental destruction caused by global warming. He said that while climate change was a “grave” and “dire” threat, the justification for the defendants’ specific actions was too vague.
“WE WON!” defendant John Tarleton, executive editor of the leftist monthly The Indypendent, exulted on Facebook. “We are pleased that Judge Mandelbaum recognized our First Amendment right to peaceably assemble was violated by the police order to disperse. Any measure that restrains the NYPD’s ability to bully and push around protesters is a victory for free speech and the rights of New Yorkers to make their voices heard,” he told Dissent NewsWire. “While the judge rejected our attempt to make a necessity defense, we are excited that he recognized climate change and the dangers it poses as an irrefutable fact that did not require fact-finding by the court. This could help pave the way for groups of future defendants who may seek to make a climate necessity defense at their trials.”
The defendants’ lawyers, Martin Stolar and Jonathan Wallace, also argued that Wall Street should not be blocked off to protesters, based on the Supreme Court’s decision last year in McCullen v. Coakley. That decision overturned a Massachusetts law that prohibited standing within 35 feet of an abortion clinic, a law intended to prevent anti-abortion protesters from harassing women and medical staff entering or leaving the clinics. Judge Mandelbaum didn’t address that argument, Tarleton said. “If that’s for abortion clinics, why should Wall Street get a free pass?” he asks. “Wall Street cannot continue to be a First Amendment-free zone just because of the power and wealth concentrated there.”
The defendants were among about 100 people—including a man dressed as a polar bear—who were arrested last Sept. 22 in a sit-in at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street. The sit-in came at the end of a “Flood Wall Street” march that drew about 3,000 people to the city’s financial district on the day after the giant “People’s Climate March,” in which an estimated 300,000 people paraded through Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon. It was a “large-scale, unpermitted direct action,” two of the organizers wrote in The Indypendent afterwards, calling for “bolder, more confrontational actions that are escalating at the scale of our global crisis” and “moving from mic-checks and roundabout marches to lockdowns and blockades.” Most of the arrested demonstrators took conditional discharges, in which the charges would be dropped if they weren’t arrested for six months, but 11 decided to plead not guilty on the grounds that their actions were justified. One of those 11 had their trial delayed by a medical emergency.