Earth Day, 8 Walk Away with a Win

We planned for the direct action, then we planned for the trial. The first came off great, the second didn’t come off at all. Which was also great – all charges were dismissed. We won twice.

Back on Earth Day, eight of us from Reject Raytheon had stopped traffic on a dirt construction entrance to the Pratt & Whitney plant. We were mostly elders, 65 or older. The plan was to shut down the steamrolling operation to get the new military-industrial factory up and running, if only momentarily and symbolically. But we ended up blocking the way for two whole hours! It was a moment to savor, standing there with trucks backed up for as far as the eye could see, in both directions.

We had done our nonviolent direct action preparations and it was a good thing because quickly confronting us were some mighty irritated truckers, private security officers, and management types from Biltmore Farms and Pratt & Whitney. Mostly, we just stood silently with our banner and signs through it all. Oddly, the Buncombe County police officers were fairly chill, chatting us up and asking if we really wanted to get arrested (not especially) or if we intended to resist arrest (not at all).

Our friends, 20 to 30 of them, were accompanying us from the bridge above, waving, taking pictures, and singing along with the band up there. It felt like being in an extended, slow motion time-out in a field contest of David vs. Goliath. It got hot out there in the sun, but we couldn’t have been more delighted to be left standing there, surrounded by the stalled forces of a land baron, war corporation, and associated security and police groups.

Why didn’t they just immediately arrest and take us away? We didn’t fully realize it at the time, but we had chosen to stand in the very spot in the road that was not owned by Biltmore Farms or deeded over to Pratt & Whitney. We were in the National Park Service buffer zone that exists on both sides of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The road into the plant went under the Parkway bridge that spans the French Broad River and we were right in the shadow of that bridge. We had chosen that spot because it was easy to get to unobserved and it provided a good photo op from above.

As it happened, none of the authorities converging on us seemed to know who had jurisdiction there. It took them a while to figure it out, with lots of comings and goings and phone calls. (Protestors in the road, who “owns” this piece of Mother Earth? Who’s in charge? Talk amongst yourselves). It was kind of fun to watch.

Eventually the National Park Service, not having the capacity for multiple arrests, asked the Buncombe County police to take charge, or so we were told later. A Buncombe County police captain arrived and very politely offered the eight of us options: we could just walk away with no charge, walk away with a citation for criminal trespass, or get cuffed and go to jail and get the same charge. We decided to take the citation, not the free pass, because we hoped to get a trial. We were prepared to go to jail, but when offered the option, we thought, nah, we don’t need that kind of abuse.

And so we hung around with the friendly police officers, while three of them wrote out our tickets. It was a little surreal, this all being treated so lightly, as if it were a scene out of the movie Alice’s Restaurant. Soon, we happily walked away, escorted by the captain, through some pretty sullen truck drivers, to the welcoming arms and water of our friends and supporters up on the bridge.

We had gone into this action agreeing, as many activists do, to see this through to a trial. The point was to extend the action as much as possible in order to shed more light on the issue through the added publicity of a trial. In the trial we would plead not guilty on the grounds of what is called a necessity defense. This defense argues that, when faced with a greater evil, people have a responsibility to take action, even if that action violates some lesser law. It’s like breaking into a neighbor’s burning house to save the people inside. Indeed, with wars and fossil fuels burning up people and planet, this is exactly how we felt. The Pratt & Whitney plant would be one more profit-making enterprise pushing us all over an existential cliff.

We were prepared to mount such a necessity defense. We sincerely felt that we had no other recourse than to commit this act of civil resistance because of the secrecy and complicity of elected officials and the business community in making this deal. It was a done deal before we ever knew it was happening. The system is corrupt, there is no process for any meaningful public engagement that resembles democracy.

In particular, we planned to explain the two-fold greater evil of this Pratt & Whitney plant to a judge and jury:  (1) likely half of the engine components produced at this plant will go into fighter jets used in illegal and immoral US-supported wars; (2) all of the engine components produced will contribute greatly to the climate emergency we are facing, despite company claims that these engines will be more energy efficient.

The messaging on our signs, banner and even the shirts we were wearing was to stop the war industry and to build wind turbines, not war machines. This was in synch with that of a national movement led by the War Industry Resisters Network to convert the war economy through a peaceful, just, and green transition.

It was this prophetic call that we wanted to bring to the judicial system. While the prosecution would undoubtedly be focused on the immediate question of whether we trespassed, we wanted to defend ourselves by saying our violation was trivial compared to the crimes of Raytheon. We would flip the script, putting Raytheon on trial. But alas, we didn’t get to do that when our charges were dismissed.

Still, we count this as a victory.

The system didn’t want to have the trial and that in itself is telling. Who knows why? Maybe the district attorney’s office looked at the jurisdictional issue and decided it was too messy to deal with.

Or maybe they looked at our preparations for a real trial and decided it wasn’t worth it. We had four expert witnesses lined up who were going to testify as to the illegality of Raytheon’s war profiteering and ecocidal business plan, according to international law. And two of us were also going to take the stand to testify as to the necessity, in fact the moral imperative, to intervene.

Or maybe Jack Cecil and Biltmore Farms didn’t want the bad publicity for its ongoing plan to replace another 1000 acres of trees with an aerospace industrial park. As we know, Pratt & Whitney is just the start, the anchor for further development devoted to military-industrial businesses. The Chamber of Commerce and Buncombe County commissioners are pushing this agenda too, so there is a lot of power invested in keeping the news positive, all about jobs and such.

Or maybe we just got a “lucky” draw of the cards in an overcrowded and under-resourced court system.

Whatever the case, we look at all the positives that have come from this action and our move to have a trial, including raising local awareness of the murderous devil in our midst and helping to generate a national movement against war corporations like Raytheon. We may not have gotten all we wanted in this action, but we do feel successful and even blessed to walk away unscathed.

Nice win this time. It’s almost enough to want to do it again.