Time out! 

Earth First! protesters cry foul over high bail

It’s 8:30 p.m. on a rainy Saturday night in Missoula. Demonstrators from Wild Rockies Earth First! sit beneath a tarp in front of the Missoula County Courthouse. Three of them haven’t eaten or slept for 48 hours, sustaining themselves on apple juice and the camaraderie of their dog, Snoopy. The hunger strikers—Molly Karp, Austin Reedy and Jason Buckendorf—say that their fast is an act of solidarity with Sean McCoy and Stephanie Valle, fellow Earth First!ers being held in jail on $70,000 bail for criminal endangerment and disorderly conduct. At 9 p.m., a deliveryman arrives with a pizza for the hunger strikers—a “thoughtful” gift from an anonymous prankster.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Sean McCoy and Stephanie Valle were arrested for hanging a sign off the Madison Street Bridge, which read, “Global Capitalism Kills Our Forests.” The sign, and the protesters who made it, hung on ropes attached to a logging truck, blocking traffic. The Missoula Fire Department was called to rescue the protesters. Several other Earth First!ers were also arrested and charged with accountability for criminal endangerment.

One of those charged was Molly Karp. At her arraignment on June 24, Karp told Judge Karen Orzech that she felt the $70,000 bail imposed on Valle and McCoy was excessive.

“If [McCoy and Valle’s] court-appointed attorneys came forward and asked for a bail reduction, I could consider this,” Orzech said. “Until I hear from them, this court does not have the latitude to do that.”

In an interview with the Independent on June 28, McCoy, speaking from jail, said that he would indeed like to have a hearing to reduce his bail—but he has not yet been able to meet with a public defender.

“I have not talked to my public defender,” McCoy said. “Public defender Alice Kennedy tried to see me on [June] 21st, but she was turned away. We don’t know why. Another public defender came to see me today, but wasn’t allowed to see me either, because the jail is apparently in ‘lock down.’ Legally speaking, I have very little idea what’s going on.”

The public defender’s office would not comment on the cases of McCoy and Valle.

Earth First! members say that Stephanie Valle, unlike McCoy, has met with her public defender, who asked Judge Orzech for a bail reduction hearing. Apparently, Orzech denied the motion for a hearing.

Attending the arraignment of hunger strikers Karp, Reedy and Buckendorf was Bryony Schwan, national campaign director for Women’s Voices for the Earth.

“I have different ways of doing environmental work, but I am concerned about people’s civil liberties…so I was concerned about the high levels of bail in this case,” she said.

Schwan was not alone in her concerns.

“Regardless of whether or not people politically agree with us, they recognize that $70,000 is not right,” Karp said, before being taken into custody. “Bail is not supposed to be punishment. A man came up to us today and told us he only got $5,000 bail for ‘having a loaded gun and a bad attitude.’”

Deputy County Attorney Jennifer Johnson responds to claim that the bail was excessive by saying, “They put a lot of people in danger with what they did…The firefighters called out left the rest of the city without fire protection.” Johnson says the bail was also set at $70,000 because “police were told more protests like this were planned. So to ensure future safety was part of this bail.”

Karp says that no more protests were planned, adding, “I don’t think police are involved in the consensus process of activists in the community…I think she is just trying to justify the police department’s use of emergency personnel in a criminal arrest, which is not standard procedure.”

From jail, McCoy said that it is unfair to hold him and Valle accountable for the actions of the rescue team.

“We are not in control of the city response to such an incident,” McCoy said. “Plus, there was still one fire station that was completely manned and operational at the time.”

McCoy also said the criminal endangerment charge is unfair because, as he puts it, “they [the rescue crew] were the ones who decided to risk their lives,” since the demonstrators did not ask to be rescued.

Local defense attorney Mark Connell uses this analogy to describe the rescue event: “I’m a kayaker, and we often go to places that are dangerous. Someone else may think it’s too dangerous, but the kayaker might feel perfectly safe, so the kayaker shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions of a rescuer.”

Connell says he would guess that public defenders for the Earth First!ers would make a similar argument at their next court appearance, scheduled for July 12 at 4 p.m.

“There is no law stating that you have to rescue people in this situation,” says Deputy County Attorney Johnson, “but they were breaking the law by stopping traffic on the bridge.”

This statement may raise issues of validity with the criminal endangerment charge, though certainly not for the count of disorderly conduct.

Nearly lost in the quagmire of legal disputes is the reason why protesters mounted its demonstration in the first place. The defendants claim that their actions are small potatoes compared to alleged logging violations by the Forest Service. Stew Lovejoy, Forest Service Burned Area Recovery Planner says that, while there may have been a few trees mistakenly cut down here or there, the Forest Service continues to do its job soundly, while always allowing the public to observe its work.

But Hunger striker Austin Reedy suggests that the public not take their word for it.

“Go check out the Bitterroot. See what they’re doing and then decide on your stance,” he said.

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