Climate Strike demonstrators appear in court for trespassing charges resulting in September pre-trial date

Monday, June 17, 2019 - 6:38pm

Demonstrators charged with trespassing from the March 15, 2019 Washtenaw County Climate Strike appear in court Monday.

Demonstrators charged with trespassing from the March 15, 2019 Washtenaw County Climate Strike appear in court Monday. Buy this photo
Photo Courtesy of Barbara Collins

On Monday morning, six demonstrators charged with trespassing from March’s Climate Strike appeared in court for the first time. All parties pleaded not guilty to the charges and the pre-trial was set for Sept. 9 at 9 a.m.

On March 15, 2019, 10 individuals, including two minors, were arrested and given citations for trespassing following a seven-hour sit-in at Fleming Administration Building. Demonstrators, who came from the Washtenaw County Climate Strike earlier that day, refused to leave until administration addressed a list of demands, which included a one-hour public meeting with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel in which questions regarding the University’s plan to address climate change and carbon neutrality were not screened beforehand.

In a March 21 letter addressed to members of the Climate Action Movement, Schlissel responded to the requests of the demonstrators, where he said the University has been “actively engaging” with community members and Climate Action Movement organizers on issues regarding carbon neutrality.

“To achieve our shared goal of carbon neutrality as soon as possible, it is essential that the community engage in identifying and understanding the challenges and contributing to the solutions necessary to convert from fossil fuels to non-carbon sources of energy,” Schlissel wrote. “I will continue to look for opportunities to engage with your membership and the broader community on these issues — everyone has a role to play.”

Following the Climate Strike, Schlissel held a public meeting on April 9 to discuss the University’s actions to address climate change. Issues discussed at the meeting included divesting from fossil fuels and the makeup of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, which includes energy industry representatives.

Two months after the Climate Strike, all individuals except the two minors were charged with trespassing misdemeanors. The trespassing complaint is identical in all cases, and the maximum sentence that can be imposed is $250 fine and/or 30 days in jail.

When asked about the decision to charge demonstrators, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email to The Daily the University does not decide whether to bring criminal charges and directed The Daily to the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office. 

“Thousands of students participate in the climate action rally without incident,” Broekhuizen wrote. “Hundreds others protested in the president's office in the following weeks. Still others addressed the Board of Regents in public meetings. Only a small number are now facing charges because they refused to leave the Fleming Building.”

In response to why the office pressed charges, Steven Hiller, chief assistant Washtenaw County prosecuting attorney, wrote in an email to The Daily the prosecutor’s office cannot discuss the facts of a case before it is adjudicated to respect the defendant’s right to a fair trial. 

Circuit Court Judge Karen Quinlan Valvo presided over the arraignment, an initial hearing at which the defendants were read their charges and gave an official plea. All demonstrators facing charges are represented by Ann Arbor-based attorney Angie Martell.

Two demonstrators who were charged did not attend the arraignment, as Martell told Valvo both parties were out-of-state. Valvo adjourned the arraignment for these two individuals. Martell told The Daily these two demonstrators will have a video call arraignment at a later date.

The six demonstrators present at the arraignment were released on a personal recognizance bond, which means they do not have to pay bail. The individuals cannot be at Fleming without an invitation from the University, and they are not allowed to leave the state without court permission or use alcohol, marijuana or other illegal drugs.

According to a press release from Climate Strike organizers, one minor and one community member out of those who were arrested are banned from the entire University campus, while the other eight individuals are banned from Fleming for one year. The organizers wrote they do not know why the University trespass citations differ.

Hiller told The Daily only a property owner may ban someone from entering onto their property. Broekhuizen has not answered The Daily regarding the differing citations at the time of publication.

Martell told The Daily she plans to pursue a climate necessity defense. According to the Climate Disobedience Center, the climate necessity defense is an argument to justify the actions of a criminal defendant that have been taken on behalf of the planet.

“This was a day of climate action … cities across the world met on this day of international outrage,” Martell said. “To arrest people on that kind of a day is just hard to fathom.”

Community reaction

Approximately 40 University of Michigan students and local community members attended the arraignment in answer to a call for support to “pack” the courtroom by Climate Strike organizers. Dressed in green to show solidarity for the individuals, demonstrators expressed disappointment by the fact that charges were pressed.

“To be clear: we are in protest of the fact that the University and the criminal justice system has decided to spend more energy and time criminalizing these organizers instead of investing in carbon neutrality and climate justice,” the Facebook event description reads.

LSA junior Abby Watroba attended the arraignment in support of a friend. She said she thought the charges were “ridiculous” and questioned why the University and the prosecutor's office did not dismiss the situation.

“It doesn’t sound to me like they particularly have a case,” Watroba said. “ … (The demonstrators) really had a right to be there and to voice their opinion.”

Eli Savit, University adjunct law professor and 2020 candidate for Washtenaw County prosecutor, said as a community member, he thinks it is important to advocate for the demonstrators.

“These are young leaders that were doing nothing other than trying to gain attention for probably the greatest existential threat that their generation and my generation faces,” Savit said. “The fact that the prosecutor’s office saw fit to criminally charge them for this totally non-violent, peaceful behavior is outrageous, and so I came first and foremost to show my support.”

Additionally, Savit said he does not believe the individuals should be given a criminal record for their actions. He said this type of case “does not need to be in the criminal justice system.”

Climate Strike organizer Vidhya Aravind, a University alum, said she took off work to attend the arraignment to support for the demonstrators charged. She also expressed skepticism at the timing of the arraignment and said she wants to show the University they will continue to organize.

“The fact that they waited until everyone left for the summer, where organizing momentum and pressure is at its lowest, and they waited to make some of the students have to come back … they picked this time very intentionally,” Aravind said. “Whether in retaliation or to prevent support, it doesn’t feel like an accident.”

The press release also said police told the arrestees they would receive a notice within two weeks if the University decided to press charges. The press release, which did not specify whether these were University or Ann Arbor police, claimed the two-month period of time between when the demonstrators were arrested and charged is “highly unusual.”

Hiller told The Daily the requests for prosecution were received by the Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney’s office on March 25, 2019.

“The cases were reviewed in a timely manner, given the number of cases that were presented arising out of this incident, the issues involved, and the other work that was assigned to the reviewing assistant prosecutor,” Hiller wrote.

Aravind voiced concern the charges will stifle general student activism at the University.

“This is sending a signal about what will happen to student protestors,” Aravind said. “This does feel like, whether or not this is their intention, it will have an eventual impact on silencing student voices.”

Matthew Grocoff, Ann Arbor resident known for his rehabilitation of the oldest home in North America to achieve net zero energy, said he attended the arraignment because he believes climate change is a “global emergency.” He claims the University could “easily drop this.”

“If (the University) thinks this is going to divert attention from their inaction, they’re sadly mistaken,” Grocoff said. “Because these students will keep coming, and these numbers will keep growing.”