FARMINGTON – Two activists took the stand Monday to defend their actions during a protest last summer of the Kibby Mountain wind power project, and they struggled to answer questions about whether they broke the law to get attention.
They testified during the first day of a jury trial in Franklin Superior Court in Farmington, which featured videos and recordings of the July 6 clash between protesters and law enforcement officials on Route 27 in Chain of Ponds Township.
Dozens of protesters had blocked Route 27 to try to prevent the tractor trailer from delivering a wind turbine blade, which was headed to the site of the TransCanada wind power project in northern Franklin County.
The Minnesota woman and Vermont man, both members of the Earth First! movement known for its use of civil disobedience, face charges of failure to disperse. The group’s two other activists arrested during the July 6 protest took plea deals Monday for similar charges.
Willow A. Cordes-Eklund, 27, was arrested after police had to cut a bicycle lock she used to chain herself by the neck to the tractor trailer.
She testified Monday she wanted to make a more serious statement than holding a sign along the roadside.
“It makes the sexiness of the moment longer,” said Cordes-Eklund, of Minneapolis.
Erik J. Gillard, 27, was arrested after he jumped onto the tractor trailer by the driver’s door.
Gillard, of Plainville, Vt., said he jumped onto the tractor-trailer to try to calm the driver down and protect protesters.
“People have often been hurt by workers caught up in an action,” he said.
Justice Michaela Murphy ended the trial Monday afternoon, with the attorneys’ closing statements scheduled for today at 10 a.m.
The activists stumbled often under questioning by Franklin County Assistant District Attorney James Andrews, who asked repeatedly whether their actions were planned.
Andrews cited the group’s website to argue Earth First! activists learn to plan ways to get arrested, often discussing before a protest about who is willing to break the law that day.
“No compromise in defense of Mother Earth,” Andrews said, citing the group’s motto.
After giving conflicting answers about whether he planned his actions, Gillard admitted he had told other activists he was willing to get arrested during the July 6 protest.
Gillard said someone who commits to civil disobedience “knows they are breaking the law.”
When asked if police officers made it clear she would be arrested, Cordes-Eklund said, “It’s that choice we all make.”
Andrews jumped at the answer, asking, “To follow the rules or not follow the rules, right?”
She shrugged and didn’t respond.
Philip Worden, her attorney, argued during the trial that Cordes-Eklund never received an order to disperse.
Law enforcement officials had broken up a demonstration at the project site earlier that day, and many of the same protesters then drove about a mile away on Route 27, where they blocked the tractor trailer being escorted by two Maine State Police vehicles.
Cordes-Eklund testified that she arrived at the first protest late and didn’t hear an order to disperse read by Maine State Police Trooper Peter Michaud, which was followed by a protesters’ arrest at the site.
Michaud testified that he read a prepared order to disperse, which warned protesters against trying to block traffic on Route 27, saying they may be subject to arrest.
A series of law enforcement officials who handled the protests were called as prosecution witnesses.
Maine State Trooper Timothy Black was part of the police escort, leading the caravan of vehicles transporting the massive wind turbine blade along Route 27.
Video from Black’s dashboard camera shows protesters blocking Route 27, before some begin walking and running toward the caravan.
There is audio of warnings issued by Black to protesters to keep away from the trailer, stop moving and other commands.
Video and audio from protesters also show law enforcement officers, which include Franklin County Sheriff’s and U.S. Border Patrol officials, talking with protesters.
Worden argued the audio and video don’t show officers issuing orders to disperse, but instead to keep off the road. He said this is not an order to disperse and does not warrant the charge of failure to disperse.
Gillard said he heard the original order to disperse at the project site. He said he wasn’t in the group that blocked the road, and got involved to try to protect the protesters.
His attorney, Lynne Williams, argued that Gillard was arrested after being ordered to stop running towards the tractor trailer. This is not an order to disperse, she said.
The two other protesters arrested July 6 accepted plea deals before the jury trial Monday. They did not appear before Justice Murphy, and their attorney, Barbara Chassie, submitted the pleas.
Courtney A. Butcher, 26, pleaded no contest to a charge of failure to disperse, bring ordered to pay a $100 fine and $60 court fees.
A charge of criminal trespassing against Butcher, of Pine River, Minn., was dropped as part of the deal, which her attorney, Barbara Chassie, called very generous. Gillard, during a break from the trial, said Butcher was the only person arrested at the Cold Brook Road protest site.
Ana I. Rodriguez, pleaded guilty to failure to disperse. Her plea deal, according to Chassie, has a deferred disposition that requires Rodriguez, 30, of Lake Worth, Fla., to perform 50 hours of community service and will dismiss the charges if she refrains from criminal conduct for 12 months.
Chassie, a Farmington attorney, called her clients committed activists who made a pragmatic decision to take the plea deals offered by the District Attorney’s Office.
“The decision to accept a plea had to do with the fact that they live far away,” Chassie said.
There were 22 wind turbines on Kibby Mountain when the protest was held, with the stopped tractor-trailer carrying parts for an additional 22 turbines at the site.
The protest was the day before a Land Use Regulation Commission meeting, where a plan for additional 15 turbines on neighboring Sisk Mountain was voted down, according to an Earth First! press release.
A later version of the proposal was approved in January, which Friends of the Boundary Mountains has since filed an appeal to the Maine Supreme Court to overturn the approval, citing violation of due process, the release states.
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