Jane Palmer: Why we risk arrest

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Jane Palmer, of Monkton, who is a business owner in Addison County. The Addison natural gas pipeline was slated to run through the middle of her and her husband’s farm before the design was changed.

Last week in Addison County court, 12 people were arraigned who were arrested back in September because they walked onto a construction site of the Vermont fracked gas pipeline and refused to leave when asked by the police.

The dozen cited for trespassing ranged in age from in their 20s all the way up into their late 70s. All were individuals whom, I suspect, decided to remain against police orders for their own individual reasons. During the arraignment process, some decided to refuse a trial, the court diversion program offered, or the right to appeal their sentence, by pleading guilty. Why?

On listening to their reasons, what struck me, was the eloquence and determination that emitted from those who stood before Judge Hoar that day. What also struck me was a realization that our judicial system is ill equipped to deal with those who choose to commit a non-violent crime in the name of a greater good. Yes, these people trespassed. But they did it standing up for their beliefs, and they did not try to evade arrest or “get away” with their so called “crimes.” Offering a chance to redeem themselves through court diversion seemed pointless and ill advised. Clearly people had thought long and hard about what they were going to do before they committed “the crime” and some may intend to do it again if they feel it is necessary. For these protesters, the larger crime being committed is the build out of fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when our society is committed, for good reasons, to weaning ourselves off of fossil fuel.

One of the elder “arrestees” pleaded guilty to trespassing and at first refused court diversion. The judge was baffled by her choice and his comments to her implied she was making the wrong decision. After noting that she had no previous record, the judge asked her if having a criminal conviction was something on her bucket list, something she felt she had to do before she left this earth. The defendant calmly and emphatically responded by admonishing the judge for being condescending. She then explained that at 77 years of age, a criminal conviction is not a deterrent for trying to stop the fracked gas pipeline or for standing in solidarity with others that are trying to stop a pipeline elsewhere.

Another defendant who was offered court diversion, instead pleaded guilty and requested to be sentenced immediately. The judge asked if he wanted to possibly go to jail. The defendant replied no, jail was not something he wanted to do, but he was prepared to go if that was what his punishment was for trespassing. Brave soul.

My impression was that the court was intent on “processing” the offenders in the most expedient way possible. Court diversion is the shortest route to what the court assumed would be the goal of those arrested … to put their lawlessness behind them.

Getting arrested that fine day in September was not a lapse in judgment. It was not a poor choice made in the heat of the moment. People who stayed past their welcome on that bucolic farm in New Haven being slashed and bisected by the pipeline construction, did so because they felt it was the RIGHT THING TO DO and the only remaining way to pressure our government officials to also do the right thing.

At this point in my life … and this point in the course of humanity, I feel it is no longer an option to sit back and let bad things simply happen.


Once you have committed the act, and have actually been arrested, you have a few options on how to navigate your way through this ill-fitting judicial system. Do you plead guilty and take your punishment? That proves that you are responsible for your actions, but ultimately, how does that help prove your point? Are you actually admitting guilt when you plead guilty? Or are you being literal in your plea? (It was right to trespass and stand up for what you believe in but indeed you are guilty of breaking the law.) Does this make you “lawless”? Once you cross that line will you, in the future, not be able to discern the difference between unlawful trespass against a morally corrupt project and say … shoplifting? Is it a slippery slope where 77-year-olds will suddenly toss away a lifetime of abiding the law to embrace a wild rampage of law-breaking, that could escalate to include acts even more harmful than trespassing on a pipeline construction site?

Or do you argue that you are innocent and the act of trespassing was something you HAD to do because of your convictions?

So … why did those 12 people do it? What was the final straw that made these law-abiding citizens cross that line and end up standing before that judge in his long black robe? From experience, I can say with authority that there is no financial gain to be had from protesting and getting arrested. Between court fees and fines and missed work and having to travel to court, the costs add up quickly. Further, if you do end up getting a conviction, having a criminal record means you will be forever saddled with that bit of branding the courts bestow upon you. But the question is, are you guilty? If so, of what? Standing up against a dirty and destructive project? Obeying your moral compass?

I was arrested earlier, back in July 2014. Along with four of my comrades (four of us landowners being forced to host the pipeline), I went to the Vermont Gas headquarters to speak with the CEO at the time, and make some reasonable demands. We were ignored and VGS employees kept trying to get us out of the building. The tables were turned and we were persistent in remaining on VGS property, much the same as the company had done on our land. But the difference was VGS called the cops and I was arrested by the South Burlington Police. I was handcuffed and transported to the police department so I could be fingerprinted and have my mug shot taken. It was a frightening experience but in the end, Vermont Gas ended up dropping the charges and my case was dismissed. The company admitted they had gone too far in having me arrested.

I was, however, prepared to argue to any judge or jury why I had broken the law by refusing to leave when told to. It was my choice to remain once I had been warned that if I stayed any longer, I would be arrested. I am an older white woman and am therefore privileged. The chances of me being physically abused or incarcerated illegally were much less than if I had been younger, of color, or a man. I felt I HAD to make a stand. I HAD to disobey the police in order to make my point. If I had left when told to, there would have been no photo of me in my sundress and sunhat, being handcuffed and placed in a police cruiser. Folks that read the articles about the action and saw photos of the overabundance of police officers there to arrest just one “diminutive” woman were outraged. Vermont Gas ended up looking like the bullies they are for not speaking with landowners in the first place and then for using excessive police force.

I pushed the envelope on that occasion because I had tried to argue against the viability of this project in lengthy proceedings before the Vermont Public Service Board. To no avail. I, along with many others, was familiar with the arguments for and against the pipeline — from the exorbitant costs, the climate impacts, the destruction of farmland, wetlands and waterways, and the corporate abuse of the eminent domain process against my neighbors. I knew with every cell of my being that this pipeline should never be built. All along, I was expecting our elected and appointed officials to listen, to learn and realize the facts that were clear as day and abandon the misguided project.

At this point in my life … and this point in the course of humanity, I feel it is no longer an option to sit back and let bad things simply happen. I am absolutely compelled to do whatever I can. My husband and I fought the pipeline before the Public Service Board with everything we could muster. We do not have a lot of money but we give what we can of our time and energy to bring the shortcomings of this project to the public and government’s attention. If that means standing in the freezing rain, or blustery cold, or oppressive heat under the hot sun along with dozens or even hundreds of other people to make a point, that is what we will do. If that means trespassing and getting arrested, taken to court and ending up with a criminal record, so be it.

I will do so because there appears to be no other recourse. I have tried reasoning. I have tried standing up to the army of lawyers that were being paid to get this pipeline approved. I have tried everything I can think of to do. Yet the power of the corporations over our government officials has rendered facts, reasoning and human decency all irrelevant. What else is there in the circumstance? I can only hold onto the hope that if we all stand up and say no – even to the point of breaking the law in the process, we will have the collective power to sway the “arc of justice” towards the right outcomes. Our government is there to serve us, we the people, not corporations or those with the most cash in hand. This is OUR country and our future and so far as I can see, to maintain our rights to a decent future, we will all have to step out of our comfort zones. We need to do whatever we can to make sure this environmentally and financially disastrous, unsafe and unnecessary gas pipeline doesn’t get completed.

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  • Tom Grout

    The judge should have ordered jail time for these trespasser’s if it is so apparent this action was pre meditated. Aside for trying to grab headlines even through their court appearances I wonder if any of them had to take time off from a job? Do their employers know of their actions that day?
    No matter what the writer may feel these companies are not bullies but have rights themselves. The employer’s help have a right to a safe work environment and for themselves, too, not to be bullied.
    I can understand some rebellion here but when the courts have ruled, pull up your undergarments and let life proceed.

  • Andrew Simon

    I think Jane and Nate Palmer should be the next Nobel Peace Prize laureates. They have stood firmly for what’s right and have sacrificed mightily for it. Thanks for this clear presentation, Jane. We are all benefiting from your courage and eloquence.

    • Tom Grout

      On the eve of Pearl Harbor Day would you say the same if our military on Dec 8, 1941 decided to think for themselves and practice civil disobedience?

      • David Bell

        Do you actually believe that is a valid comparison?

        • Jamie Carter

          It is a better comparison then linking protesting a pipeline to segregation.

          • David Bell

            I never did that.

            I pointed out protesting a pipeline using non-violent means is similar to protesting segregation laws using largely the same non-violent means.

  • Diane Derrick

    I am going to nominate Nate and Jane Palmer for Vermonters of the year. She makes the case herself with this powerful commentary and her steadfast commitment to stand up for her beliefs so I am proud to nominate her. I invite all Vermonters who believe in stepping up to do the same.

  • Jamie Carter

    Jane Palmer,

    “During the arraignment process, some decided to refuse a trial, the court diversion program offered, or the right to appeal their sentence, by pleading guilty. Why?”

    I’ll answer, because they were guilty. It’s not that hard to comprehend.

    “Yes, these people trespassed. But they did it standing up for their beliefs, and they did not try to evade arrest or “get away” with their so called “crimes.””

    It’s irrelevant. They comitted a crime. A law was written by a duly elected legislature and signed into law by a duly elected governor. You can’t pick and choose which laws you want to follow whether they are violent or non-violent.

    By your logic a junkie should be allowed to purchase and use heroin, because it’s non-violent and as long as they don’t try to get away with it and believe they should be allowed to harvest a natural plant for their own use than it’s ok.

    You don’t get to throw out the court system because you don’t like fracking.

    • David Bell

      How about African Americans who went entered establishments that displayed signs saying non-whites were not allowed in?

      Civil disobedience has a very long history of being used to protest unjust or inequitable laws.

      • Jamie Carter

        Did you really just equate protesting a natural gas pipeline to the civil rights movement? Good Grief.

        • David Bell

          You stated that if a person breaks a law that is the end of the discussion.

          I pointed out another example of people openly and brazenly breaking laws for largely the same reasons.

        • Walter Carpenter

          As the late Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate said,

          “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

    • Jane Palmer

      Jamie Carter;
      You say “you can’t pick and choose which laws you want to follow…” In my commentary I tried to provide an explanation as to why some people (including myself) did just that. We chose to disobey a law. Anyone can choose to disobey any law at any time ( I am NOT condoning that…just stating a fact). Your analogy to heroin use is not relevant. The people that chose to trespass and stand up and take the consequences are not the equivalent of illegal drug users by any means.. And the fracking issue is just a part of the problem. When I examined the entire project…from all sides, it came up lacking in every way. I am aware that there will be many that will feel as you do and decide to accept whatever happens..put their trust in the regulatory system regardless of whether it is just or not.Thank goodness there are also many people who are motivated to find out the truth and do the right thing.

  • Pam Ladds

    Standing up for what is right regardless of what the law says is important. And without such acts of courage and commitment nothing changes. And for those who smugly say the law should be followed no matter what ….. I wonder what would happen if it was your land being snatched by eminent domain. Your family who was being threatened by a perfectly legal KKK or other hate group. The color of your skin, the religion you practice or your sexual orientation?

    Civil disobedience is an important vehicle for change. Protesters are usually protectors!

    • Jamie Carter

      I would pursue legal avenues, not illegal ones. And I certainly would not attempt to compare protesting a pipeline to the civil rights movement.

      • David Bell

        Both the civil rights protesters and the pipeline protesters used largely the same non-violent though illegal avenues to raise awareness.

        Your dislike of an analogy does not invalidate it.

        • Jamie Carter

          The civil rights movement addressed a clear cut issue. The denial of rights based on ones race. Protesting a pipeline addresses a perceived issue that a natural gas pipeline is bad, because you believe it is bad. One is a denial of human rights, the other is an opinion of a group of people that don’t like “Big Oil” and conspiracist that believe Youge International Corporations are hell bent on ruining the world they live in for a few extra bucks. It ignores that some people see it as good and they have some valid points. There was never a valid argument for segregating people based on race. Pretending that opposition to a pipeline is in the same realm as fighting for equal rights and an end to racial discrimination is sickening in it’s lack of empathy and respect for those that experienced racial discrimination.

          • David Bell

            If you actually review the history of the civil rights movement, you will find millions of people who felt denying people rights because of the color of their skin was good, and it was only “perceived as bad” by fools and morons. Much the same as you blithely dismiss the views of the pipeline protesters.

            You may feel this form of protest is only acceptable when you personally deem the protesters views valid, but this is a poor basis for allowing or denying others the right to protest.

            All this ignores the basic fact that your original argument was simply saying the law is the law and if protesters violate the law that is all there is to it.

            I am sorry you find the comparison sickening, but again, this does not invalidate it. Both parties protest to raise awareness on issues they consider important; and neither has to prove to you personally that their views are valid in order to have that right.

    • Walter Carpenter

      “Protesters are usually protectors!”

      Right on.

  • Civil disobedience is the act of a powerless group resisting a monolithic opponent for a political cause. That the judge in this case cant seem to understand these are acts of civil disobedience speaks volumes. The state and its corporate overlords are arrayed against citizen taxpayers, who ultimately must foot the bill, and will (eventually) figure that out. History proves that a callous disregard for reality ( in this case, that natural gas is not “natural”) is the hallmark of collapsing social order.

    • Jamie Carter

      The judge couldn’t grasp pure irrationality. It has nothing to do with protestors protesting, it’s the cutting of their nose to spite their face that he couldn’t grasp. Everyone has the right to hold to their principles, but if doing so doesn’t make logical sense they do not have the right to expect others to understand.

  • Edward letourneau

    I can see why these people want to live in the dark and not have heart in winter, but why do they think everyone else should follow them — and why do they think that have to right to make (in essence force) others live as they want to? We live in a society where fuel is needed for everyday life. If they want to live without out it, that is their choice. They rest of want lights and heat. — That is the greater good. Trying to stop it is not.

    • Melanie Peyser

      You’ve hit on a critical fact about this pipeline: it is not necessary to heat or electrify homes. It’s completely different than the 1950s electrification of Vermont or highways. At best, VGS’s pipe may deliver a fuel choice that is MORE EXPENSIVE for the average family, with all costs counted, than oil, wood, or renewable options. Much of the proponents’ testimony was simply inaccurate, their projections wrong. The PSB ignored nearly all opposing evidence to the detriment of VT and justice: no new jobs, no savings for homeowners, poor compliance with construction safety standards, AND VGS customers stuck with construction costs without adequate documentation. Landowners were bullied by threats of eminent domain into a choice to give up home or live by an unsafe pipeline. A broken state government with flawed policies failed to properly vet facts, represent the public, AND enforce the law and permits. Unlike VGS and the state, at least the protesters are accountable for their actions.

  • Robert B Mancuso

    you have to come to court with clean hands

  • terence cuneo

    Jane Palmer has given us a beautiful testimony about what it takes to stand up for justice. Thank you, Jane.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful piece and for taking risks to help save the earth. It’s becoming crystal clear that we all need to have more courage like you…..and stand up for what we believe in. I went to some of the hearings and spoke- but to no avail. The VT PSB clearly is on the side of the fossil fuel dealers and it seems that civil disobedience is a tool that we need to employ more. Thanks again for your efforts and I applaud you!

    • Tom Grout

      Today is the ATM machine being blocked, yesterday was the governors office tomorrow might just be the path to the yoga club.Beware of what you ask for it just might show up at something you want.

  • Robert B Mancuso

    can not break the law

  • Nancy Baker

    I would ask those that wrote negative, bordering on nasty comments to put themselves in the Palmer’s shoes. There rights to live safely on there property, (current statistics state a pipeline either leaks or explodes every other day in the US) as well as on this planet, (fracking contributes more to global warming than was previously reported) were stripped without any recourse. If it were you, would you just say “OK”. Big corporations are bullying people in the name of their profits only. I believe it will take many more brave people, like the Palmers to take a stand against these bullies, and encourage you to do so. Civil disobedience was what created our democracy to begin with, and perhaps the only non-violent action that can sustain it now.

    • Tom Grout

      Given the choice of one pipeline’s mechanical problems to deal with and thousands of smaller LP gas trucks driving around endangering all of us I would choose the buried pipeline rather than give would be terrorists a drivers license to kill.

  • Ray Mainer

    Dylan Roof thought he was doing the right thing when he broke the law. He thought he was saving the White Race. Does that make it OK? Just because you think it is the right thing to do doesn’t make it so.

    • Jane Palmer

      Hi Ray
      Your analogy to Dylan Roof is a little extreme. If you are going to use a cold blooded murderer to compare to the trespassers, the murderers would be Vermont Gas with their accomplices, the Vt Department of Public Service and the Public Service Board. The trespassers are the people, who, after learning about the murderer’s plans, broke into his house and stole his bullets. Yes, they would have broken a law by breaking and entering, but they did it to stop a larger crime.

  • “It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
    It isn’t nice to go to jail,
    There are nicer ways to do it,
    But the nice ways always fail.
    It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
    You told us once, you told us twice,
    But if that is Freedom’s price,
    We don’t mind.

    It isn’t nice to carry banners
    Or to sit in on the floor,
    Or to shout our cry of Freedom
    At the hotel and the store.
    It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
    You told us once, you told us twice,
    But if that is Freedom’s price,
    We don’t mind.”

    (Malvina Reynolds, 1964)

  • Peter Everett

    My definition of “for the greater good” may differ from another’s person’s. What gives me the right to impose my view upon another person? Where is the point of going too far to present a view. What is the true definition of “for the greater good”‘? Is there one definition all will accept? If I disagree with yours, do I have the right to protest? Do I have the right to destroy another’s property? In this society it seems it’s OK. I never see people prosecuted to the fullest. Maybe, if the book were thrown at those who commit these crimes, less would take place. In a very liberal state of Vermont, I doubt this would happen. My guess is those people would be praised. Something has definitely gone afoul in thing country/state. Thank God I have more days behind me than ahead of me!!!

    • Lisa Barrett

      Mr. Everett–What property was destroyed??? None.

      Our constitution protects–and honors–our right and our obligation to protest. The US has a long legal tradition of violating laws for the greater good: We all know about the American Revolution and the many violations of British Law that preceded it. Other well-known examples are Vermont’s violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the sit-ins that violated segregation laws.