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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Guest opinion: The Rev. George Taylor: When is civil disobedience justified?

the Rev. George Taylor

I am glad that Rob McKenna, former attorney general of the state of Washington, is not the presiding judge in my legal case of nonviolent civil disobedience now pending in Spokane County Superior Court.

In a guest opinion column published in this paper on Jan. 11 (“Personal views don’t excuse crimes”), Mr. McKenna set himself up as self-appointed judge, jury and prosecutor of my legal case even before it has gone to trial, which is now scheduled for April 23. As a former prosecutor himself, Mr. McKenna should know that you do not pass judgment on a case that is currently being investigated and litigated. In our system of justice, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of his peers – and not the other way around.

Surprisingly, as an experienced attorney, Mr. McKenna shows little understanding of the time-honored “necessity defense” granted by judges all over this country in cases of nonviolent civil disobedience, if the evidence warrants such a ruling. The necessity defense allows a defendant to argue before a jury why a law was broken in order to avoid an imminent greater harm. A better example than the vicious dog example Mr. McKenna used would be if you trespassed and broke down a door to pull an injured person out of a burning building. That would be justified.

In August 2016, I was part of a group of six citizens of the Spokane area who committed nonviolent civil disobedience by attempting to stop coal and oil trains from passing through Spokane on two separate occasions. We all six were arrested and charged with criminal trespass and blocking of a train. The three “Raging Grannies” and three veterans of the armed forces, of whom I was one, were prepared to take the legal consequences for what we did, which could include jail time.

We did this in order to prevent a greater harm to the health and well-being of the citizens of Spokane and elsewhere, of the real and imminent danger of permitting unregulated coal and oil trains coming through downtown Spokane and imminent and real danger of the burning of these fossil fuels in energy production that cause greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming that could destroy civilization as we know it, if left unchecked.

As Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Steven Running, who testified at our necessity defense hearing, has said: “There is no such thing as clean coal or oil. The production, transport and use of these fossil fuels for energy is the single greatest threat today to the survival of civilization as we know it. We must stop this dangerous practice and switch as quickly as possible to more sustainable sources of energy such as wind, solar and hydro.”

After hearing Dr. Running’s testimony and other expert witnesses, the judge allowed the necessity defense to be presented for a jury to decide at trial. This was no symbolic protest. Last year, an oil train carrying hundreds of cars of volatile crude oil from Montana and North Dakota, which hours earlier had passed through downtown Spokane, derailed and exploded in Oregon, causing massive environmental damage to the Columbia River Gorge. Fortunately no lives were lost.

But next time, that could have happened in downtown Spokane. In the “blast zone” of such a disaster, local firefighters from Spokane Firefighters Union #29 have testified there would be loss of life and billions of dollars worth of damage. Is that a risk worth taking?

There are three branches of the American government: executive, legislative and judicial. Each has a role to play in the checks and balances required to best serve the common good of all its citizens. All three branches have a responsibility to protect health and safety.

I would challenge Mr. McKenna to do everything in his power, as a leader in the legal community, to preserve and protect our environment for the health and safety of this and future generations before it is too late, rather than criticize his fellow citizens for trying to do the same.

George Taylor is a retired Presbyterian minister living in Spokane who serves as treasurer of Spokane Veterans for Peace, Chapter 35, and as visitation pastor for All Saints Lutheran Church.