My lungs burned from climbing up the quarter mile of stairs, and the cold December air I inhaled soothed them momentarily, but then intensified the fire as I exhaled.
I smiled as I came around the corner of the gorge wall, the distant rumbling I had been hearing erupted into a gushing roar as Lucifer Falls came into sight. With a sigh I leaned against the icy wall of the trail, which wound along the cliff faces like Ithaca’s version of the Great Wall of China. The spray of Lucifer Falls that landed on the gorge walls froze in brilliant swirling ice sculptures, fashioned by the hand of nature herself. Thousands of feet below me, the water crashed into a lovely aquamarine pool, a chilly mist rising off the surface.
I took another deep breath, enjoying the sting of the frigid air. If things had gone as I planned this week, I’d be in jail right now, not enjoying a hike in Robert Treman State Park. The longer We Are Seneca Lake’s campaign to stop Crestwood Midstream’s ill-fated project to store methane along the lake’s western shore drags into the winter, the stranger our court proceedings get. Just two weeks ago, if I had gone before the judge, I’d surely be in the slammer.
In the hours before my 7 p.m. court date on Dec. 17, I was scrambling around my house to get ready. I didn’t forget anything, which is unusual for me. I left the house with time to spare. In my folder titled “Information,” I had my statements for the judge prepared, as well as three documents I would give to him: the Town of Reading Land Use Law, Crestwood Midstream’s 10K report and an economic report. I had each of these documents highlighted so the judge could easily find the relevant parts. I highlighted the Seneca Lake Protection provision in the land use law which says there may be no storage of hazardous materials to the east of Route 14, which is exactly where Crestwood’s gas storage facility is. I highlighted the section in the 10K report where Crestwood admits that disasters like cavern failure, explosion and water pollution are possible, and that the company is not fully insured. I highlighted the section in the economic report pointing out that Crestwood ducked out of 7 million dollars in taxes.
I was ready to prove to the judge that Crestwood’s present and future actions were far worse than trespassing in an act of peaceful civil disobedience.
However, when my companion and I arrived at the courthouse, we found a line of signs up and down the road mandating no one could park on the shoulder via a temporary sheriff’s order. In addition, a parking lot neighboring the courthouse we had been using was barricaded. As we pulled into the courthouse’s tiny parking lot that I knew wouldn’t fit everyone who wanted to come that night, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingling. They were limiting our access to the courthouse.
I had come prepared to play, but the rules of the game were about to change.
While a majority of the night’s cases, including my own, were scheduled for 7 p.m., there was one case at 5 p.m.: Laura Salamendra’s. As 5 p.m. approached, we gathered around the door with Salamendra, waiting to get in. A police officer emerged and informed her that she could only enter with her attorney and either her father, mother or husband. Laura replied that none of those people were available, and asked for a support person.
“No, the court is closed.” **
Not long after, one of our pro bono legal advisers, Sujata Gibson, arrived and engaged with this officer, informing him that barring the public from court was unconstitutional and illegal.
“Sheriff’s orders,” the officer replied. “Take it up with him.”
The gathered crowd erupted into shouts of protest, and Gibson continued to press the officer, demanding an explanation for why our rights were being stripped from us. Not long after, we were informed that the press was also not allowed to attend Salamendra’s appearance, violating our first amendment rights in addition to our sixth.
Growing impatient, the officer threatened that Salamendra would miss her court date, and Gibson and Salamendra gave up and went inside.
As I paced back and forth outside the door, trying to calm my anger, I realized nothing was going to go as we planned tonight. The authorities of Schuyler County were lashing out. In just two days 69 people were arrested at the gates of Crestwood, marking 161 arrests total. Were they scared? Overwhelmed? Both?
When Salamendra and Gibson eventually emerged from the courtroom, we gathered around to hear what had happened.
When Salamendra plead guilty and refused her fine, she was not sentenced jail. Instead, Judge Raymond Berry, taking orders from Assistant District Attorney John Tunney, gave her a judgment. This damaged her credit and placed a hold on some of her assets, essentially forcing her to pay the $250 fine in one form or another.
“He said they’re taking away the jail option,” Salamendra announced.
I realized in that moment I wouldn’t be going to jail.
In addition, the pair revealed to us that upon entering the courthouse, they could overhear a conversation between Tunney and Berry about how to deal with all of us, and strategizing on how to discredit Gibson as a legal adviser. These sorts of ex parte conversations are illegal, and it goes to show the blatant corruption occurring in Schuyler County in which the district attorney is using a small town judge with no legal background as a puppet.
Sandra Steingraber had to negotiate with the police to get public and press access to the courtroom for the 7 p.m. arraignments. They brought in those of us with cases at first, allowing us to choose one person to bring with us if we wished. After we were all brought in, there was a count to determine how much space was left for more members of the public without violating the fire code. As we were waiting for the count, one person realized his court date had been changed, and he and his girlfriend stood to leave the courthouse.
The courthouse secretary intercepted the pair as they exited the courtroom.
“Where are you going?”
“We need to leave,” he replied calmly.
“Absolutely not. Please go take your seat in the courtroom so we can count.”
“We don’t need to be here anymore,” he said.
“Sir, please go take your seat,” she said as the police officer also stepped in front of them.
“Hey!” I snapped from the door to the courtroom. “His arraignment date got changed, he doesn’t need to be here. You can’t hold him here; this is a courthouse, not a jail!”
She jabbed a finger in my direction, reprimanding me for being disrespectful. Not long after, however, the officer let the pair out, and a tense quiet settled back over the courthouse as we waited for everyone else to be let in.
By the time everyone had settled in, we had changed our strategy. Instead of pleading guilty and refusing our fines, we would all plead not guilty. I glared at the back of the chair in front of me as everyone went up, one by one. Something didn’t seem right. How could we know for sure they had taken away the jail option? The district attorney had left after Salamendra’s case, and he wasn’t here to breath down Judge Berry’s neck anymore. I stood and went over to stand next to Steingraber, who was in the midst of conversation with another person.
“I think we should have one person plead guilty, just to see what happens,” she said as I approached, her eyes sliding knowingly to mine.
“I’ll do it,” I said. If I could break through and get to jail tonight, it would be big news.
After Barry read me my rights, I pressed him to tell me what my penalty would be if I plead guilty, but he would only say that the options were numerous. At our past few arraignments, the option was quite clear. If you didn’t pay the fine, you would go to jail.
His refusal to tell me what he would do to me did not deter me. I informed him that I was pleading guilty, and that I would not be paying any fine. He gave me the opportunity to give a statement.
“Your honor, I committed the act of trespass to protect Seneca Lake. I did this peacefully and with love. New York’s penal code does not offer guidance on how to sentence someone who commits trespass peacefully and with moral purpose. That is up to you.
You have said many times in this courtroom how much the law means to you. I think if you truly believe the justice system you are upholding in this court is good for American citizens, then my actions have been harmful to society and should be treated as such.
However, if you think the circumstances surrounding my arrest separate me from normal trespass cases, I have a different proposal for you. I ask you to serve our community and bring Crestwood executives forward to stand trial.”
I went on to tell him about Crestwood’s damning 10K report and the potential violations of the Reading land use law. He sat back in his chair when I read off these facts, bringing his hand up to his face as he watched me.
After I finished my statement, he stared at me for a moment before saying;
“I am postponing your sentencing until January 21st. I’d like to take some time to think about what you’ve told me.”
I tried to object, but he wouldn’t have any of it. I handed over the “Information” folder I had prepared — some reading material to supplement his thinking time.
When I left the stand people smiled at me and put their hands on my shoulders and hugged me, telling me I did I great job and that I had really gotten to him.
Me, I’m not convinced. I think Barry found a way to keep me out of jail while making it seem like he had listened to me. He was still taking his orders from Fazarry.
What I do know is that Schuyler County officials are becoming concerned enough to strategize behind closed doors, and they’re becoming desperate enough to make a huge mistake like taking away our constitutional rights.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” —Mohandas Gandhi
They are fighting back now, so it looks like we’re on track to win.
**Note: All quotes in this post are based on my memory of the night’s proceedings, not recordings or notes. My statement to the judge was pre-prepared, so I was able to pull an accurate quote from it for this blog post.
The original version of this blog post stated that District Attorney Joseph Fazarry was the one directing Judge Berry. I have corrected the post to state that it was in fact Assistant District Attorney John Tunney who was present that night.