Prosecuting Protest?

Greenpeace officials, while celebrating a US prosecutor's decision to drop felony charges against 15 anti-missile protestors, claim the case illustrates a campaign to intimidate activists.

| Wed Jan. 9, 2002 4:00 AM EST

Felony charges against 15 anti-nuclear activists and two journalists have been dropped, the result of a plea bargain between Greenpeace USA and federal prosecutors in Los Angeles. However, the two sides remain far apart on why the charges were originally brought.

"From the beginning, the case has been over-prosecuted," says Greenpeace USA spokeswoman Carol Gregory. "Even before Sept. 11, there seemed to be a movement in this country to stifle peaceful protest, and our guys were among the first victims of that trend. The felony charges are a worrying sign for future non-violent protesters in the United States."

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Refuting Gregory's assertions, federal prosecutors in California claim the felony charges were a reasonable legal response to the nature of the protest, and not part of any larger initiative.

The activists, including citizens of six foreign countries, were initially arrested during a July 14 protest at California's Vandenberg Air Force base. Greenpeace scheduled the demonstration to coincide with a test at the base associated with ongoing military efforts to develop a missile defense system. The protestors allegedly tried to interfere with the missile test by stationing themselves in small boats in a restricted area off the coast from the California base.

After being arrested by FBI agents, the demonstrators were held for a week at a maximum security jail in Bakersfield, California. All were charged with Violation of a Safety Zone Order, a federal felony that carries a maximum penalty of 11 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 per offense. Thanks to the plea bargain, the demonstrators instead pled guilty to trespassing, a misdemeanor which carries a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment, and most are expected to spend little or no time in jail.

Still, Greenpeace activists say they are disturbed that prosecutors ever brought the felony charges, suggesting that federal officials are seeking to intimidate and muzzle activists. Gregory says Greenpeace has sponsored hundreds of demonstrations at Vandenberg, and none have resulted in felony charges for the protesters.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the US Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, confirmed that the case represents the first time "in recent memory" that the Safety Zone statute had been applied to a protest. But he denied that the decision to bring the felony charges stemmed from any effort to quell peaceful protest.

"The demonstration last July was fundamentally different from previous Vandenberg protests," Mrozek claims. "The vast majority of Greenpeace protests have been held in designated areas, near the front gates of military installations, and have involved symbolic acts of civil disobedience. There was never any reason to bring felony charges."

Mrozek says that the demonstrators' decision to place themselves in the test area, directly underneath the missile's planned flight path, made the July protest both dangerous and costly.

"In comparison, these guys endangered themselves, military and law enforcement officials, and two even had to be rescued by helicopter," he says. "They were warned that violation of the statute carried a felony charge. In short, they received felony charges for felony offenses."

John Passacanto, executive director of Greenpeace USA, denies Mrozek's assertions, claiming that the July protest was no different than previous demonstrations at Vandenberg and elsewhere.

"These guys went out in classic Greenpeace style, at great personal danger to themselves, and pulled off a tremendous protest in the best tradition of our organization," he says.

As part of the plea agreement, Greenpeace USA, while admitting to no wrongdoing, agreed to pay $150,000 in damages. In addition, the group agreed to an injunction barring Greenpeace activists for five years from any illegal activity during protests at US military bases. Mrozek says the fine will cover government expenses incurred during the ordeal, including prosecution, and the injunction provides the judicial system with an "extra layer" of protection should Greenpeace violate existing laws in the future.

As for Greenpeace, Passacanto says the fine is a small price to pay for setting the activists free, and argues that the injunction will not meaningfully diminish the group's activities or effectiveness.

"The ruling only specifies we have to refrain from illegal protest at US military bases in the continental US. There are plenty of legal means of protest still at our disposal here in the US, and we will continue to act however we see fit outside of the United States," he says. "Greenpeace USA will certainly continue to maintain a public presence and act to raise public awareness to the issues we have always been concerned with, like global warming, ocean dumping, and yes, even Star Wars."