Climate strike demonstrators appear in court for pretrial

Sunday, September 15, 2019 - 7:10pm

Protesters waiting outside for several detained students to be released by UMPD after a sit-in protesting the University's climate policy in the Fleming Administration Building in March.

Protesters waiting outside for several detained students to be released by UMPD after a sit-in protesting the University's climate policy in the Fleming Administration Building in March. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

Six demonstrators who were charged with trespassing during a sit-in at the Fleming Administration Building following the March Climate Strike appeared in court for their pretrial hearing Friday morning. The hearing was meant to simplify the facts of the case and discuss the evidence presented before Oct. 10, when the official motion is scheduled to take place. 

According to Ann Arbor attorney Angie Martell, who is representing all demonstrators, two of those charged were out of state at the time of the hearing. 

On June 17, six demonstrators appeared in court for the first time. They were arraigned and pleaded not guilty to the trespassing charges, which bear a maximum charge of a $250 fine with or without 30 days in jail. During the June hearing, the demonstrators were released on a personal recognizance bond, meaning they did not have to pay bail. They were told they cannot enter the Fleming building; use alcohol, marijuana or other illegal drugs; or leave the state without permission of the court.

In light of the upcoming Jewish holidays, Circuit Court Judge Karen Quinlan Valvo, who presided over Friday’s hearing, lifted the ban on alcohol for the demonstrators who are over 21. 

After the Climate Strike on March 15, during which an estimated 2,500-3,000 students, faculty and community members rallied on the Diag in protest against inaction relating to matters of climate change, demonstrators flooded University President Mark Schlissel’s office in the Fleming building for a seven-and-a-half-hour sit-in. The demonstrators’ chief demand was a one-hour meeting with Schlissel and other members of the administration to discuss the University’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality. A group of demonstrators refused to leave until the University addressed their demands, leading to the arrests of 10 individuals on charges of trespassing — two of whom were minors. 

On April 9, Schlissel and other members of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality held a public session to discuss some of the demonstrators’ concerns and strategies to move the University closer to carbon neutrality.

University alum Hoai An Pham, a co-organizer of the Washtenaw County Climate Strike, said Friday’s hearing was indicative of how the fight against climate change is often criminalized or diminished. 

“It’s always very frustrating to me in court to see that process unfold and understand the very strong links between prison justice and climate justice,” Pham said. “We know that fighting for a future that doesn’t have these oppressive systems is really important and I was reminded of that for sure (on Friday).”

At the hearing, Martell told Valvo that the case has not received full discovery, meaning the facts of the case and the information the defense has received is not adequateto proceed to trial. 

The defendants received videos of the sit-in that were choppy and lacked audio, making it difficult to know whether demonstrators were given adequate notice of the possibility of arrest at the sit-in, Martell said. According to demonstrators present at the sit-in, students were told to either vacate Fleming by 8 p.m. or face possible arrest. 

“This is a problem because the issue of notice is one of the compelling issues,” Martell said. “And so to have a video that possibly could have exculpatory evidence would be important for a defense. We’ve asked the University and prosecutor’s office for additional discovery information regarding the arrests, regarding the videos, regarding reports, regarding some of the issues that are also essential to the necessity defense.”

In response to Martell’s request for clearer video evidence of the events of the sit-in, Darren Miller, an assistant prosecuting attorney for Washtenaw County, said he reached out to his office and found that no higher-quality videos exist. 

Martell also told Valvo the defendants submitted subpoenas to the University for purposes of discovery but were denied by Thomas Kent, the associate general counsel to the University, because they were not signed by a judge. In response, Valvo set a motion hearing on honoring the subpoenas for Oct. 10. 

Martell said the case rested in the University’s decision to arrest students for protesting, even when the University has a long history of social and political engagement on the part of the students. 

“The University of Michigan is a public university and it has a history of allowing students to address issues that are so important to our nation, and our environment is one of those,” Martell said. “I don’t know of any situation where people have been arrested for trespassing in Michigan when they had been students, when they paid tuition, when they had a valid reason for being there, (when) they’re alumni, because they spoke out on a day of world outrage.” 

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald declined to comment on the arrests and subsequent hearing to The Daily, saying the University does not handle the court process and had nothing further to add regarding the March arrests. 

Days before the hearing, Pham and other Climate Strike members sent out a notice on Facebook calling on students, faculty and community members to “pack the courtroom” in support of the demonstrators. 

Pham said she wanted to spread awareness about the arrests and urged students to continue demonstrating until plans to address climate change are put into place. 

“We really want to make sure that people understand what’s going on,” Pham said. “And we really want people to be putting pressure on the University to take action. It says a lot, and I’ve said this many times before, but the University has at this point invested much more and taken more action on trying to prosecute these individuals than they’ve done towards actual, palpable climate justice measures.”

Rackham student Jonathan Morris attended the hearing in support of the demonstrators. Morris, who participated in the March Climate Strike and the sit-in, said he was discouraged by the University’s response to the demonstrators but hoped it would lead to future discussion regarding the issue of climate change. 

“In terms of climate change and what they’re here for today, I think it’s really pretty sad,” Morris said. “That graduate students that are studying climate change and people that are advocating for more political action on climate change, peacefully protesting and simply asking for an open meeting with the President of the University, that the University’s position was to ... have students arrested for simply protesting for a livable future.”