98-year-old Frances Crowe arraigned for pipeline protest

By Heather Bellow

The Berkshire Eagle

Published: 06-30-2017 9:17 AM

GREAT BARRINGTON — Frances Crowe is often seen smiling. But on the courthouse steps, the 98-year-old activist went stern.

“This is a serious business we’re involved in,” she said, speaking from her wheelchair. “This is the future of life on the planet. Are the corporations going to rule the future, or will people rise up and say no?”

The 98-year-old Crowe, a longtime, legendary peace and environmental activist was among eight anti-pipeline activists arraigned in Southern Berkshire District Court Thursday after arrests Saturday for trespassing on state-owned and protected land in Otis State Forest.

Crowe and the others were swiftly told by the assistant court clerk – before the judge was even seated – that the state had decriminalized their charges, and that their civil hearing was set for July 18.

The state had similarly reduced the same charges against 24 other activists affiliated with climate justice group Sugar Shack Alliance, who were arrested in early May.

The activists had crossed into Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.’s easement and temporarily stopped pipe-laying work to this part of the company’s 13-mile tri-state Connecticut Expansion Project.

Construction of the natural gas storage loop is well underway, and still sowing anger among activists and residents over a host of issues, mainly that the Kinder Morgan subsidiary wrestled a roughly 2-mile easement from the state in court.

The land is protected by Article 97 of the state constitution, but a superior court judge ruled that the federal Natural Gas Act of 1938 held sway over state laws.

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On the courthouse steps after the arraignment, Crowe said why she had traveled to Sandisfield, where she was arrested next to an open pipe trench.

“Corporations come and go, but life is in jeopardy,” she said.

She then compared her hint at modern complacency with what happened during World War II – a time she can actually remember, since she was in her 20s.

“[We need to] stop being good Germans,” she added. “We let Hitler do what he did.”

The events leading to the Saturday arrests unfolded after a rally at Lower Spectacle Pond. Around 60 activists then walked back to Sugar Shack’s staging ground on private land in Sandisfield, where the Thoreau Cabin Pipeline Barricade was reconstructed in May next to the company’s easement. The cabin was built there to draw attention to the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline (NED), which was tabled by Kinder Morgan last year.

Sugar Shack members, who are mostly from Franklin County, had celebrated the demise of the NED project, but vowed to take on any future new pipelines within their reach.

Two company pipelines run through the state forest here already – one built in 1951 and the other in 1981. Tennessee Gas had to widen the easement to make for this line, which will hold 36-inch pipes and gas intended mostly for Connecticut customers.

It was from the cabin that activists pushed Crowe in her wheelchair down the existing corridor – abloom with wildflowers and tall grass – to the open pipe trench, stopping machinery, and causing Tennessee Gas workers to get on their cell phones and walkie-talkies.

Crowe has been arrested numerous times in her life, and three times since turning 90. She said Saturday she hadn’t been arrested enough. Though she wanted to be arrested, it wasn’t an easy day, she said.

After the arraignment, Sugar Shack spokeswoman Vivienne Simon, who was one of the first to be arrested in May, said decriminalizing the trespassing charges makes it easier to risk getting arrested again, without more severe penalties that could include jail time.

And Elizabeth Carretti-Ramirez, who was arrested Saturday and on May 6, said it was a “mixed bag.”

“We would like this to go to trial,” said the Holyoke resident. “But selfishly, [the civil charges] makes my life easier.”

But those minor, civil charges weren’t so easy for Judge Paul Vrabel or the attorneys at last week’s hearing for the protesters charged in May. All were faced with a set of trespassing circumstances that grew convoluted next to a law that says that, for the trespassing charge to stick, the land must be "enclosed" or "improved" – not an easy call about state forest access roads the activists had blocked.

While Vrabel is expected to rule on that matter any day now, the activists are looking for new ways to stop the pipeline, which, if on schedule, will take about four more months of construction to complete.

They said they’ve got ideas and that they’re creative, but they will take escalation only so far.

“We are still committed to nonviolence,” Carretti-Ramirez said, noting that she and fellow defendant, Laura Simon of Wilder, Vt., had also gone to North Dakota to entrench at Standing Rock to oppose Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline.

“It’s all one big pipeline,” she added, repeating one of the group’s maxims about new pipeline projects everywhere.

And of Tennessee Gas’ new, $93 million line, she wondered why that money couldn’t have been invested in solar and wind. She said corporate profit is fine as long as it isn’t at the expense of health and the planet.

“It’s not that we don’t want people to make money,” she said.

And about this planet, Crowe said she would devote her remaining years to it.

“I’m fortunate to be here,” she said.

Berkshire Eagle staff writer Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com.

Those arraigned Thursday:

Frances Crowe, Northampton

Priscilla Lynch, Conway

Erik Burcroff, Plainfield

Dennis Carr, Cummington

Ellen Grave, West Springfield

Connie Harvard, Northampton

Laura Simon, Wilder, Vermont.

Elizabeth Carretti-Ramirez, Holyoke