Presbyterian ruling elder at forefront of historic climate action trial

Trial attempts to use unprecedented ‘necessity defense’ for civil disobedience

January 15, 2016

Abby Brockway, center, with the Delta 5.

Abby Brockway, center, with the Delta 5. —Photo courtesy Delta4Trial.org

LOUISVILLE

On Sept. 2, 2014 five activists chained themselves to train tracks in Everett, Wash., in an effort stop the transport of oil and coal trains through the Pacific Northwest. One of the five is Abby Brockway, a ruling elder at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church in Seattle. Abby and her colleagues, known as the Delta 5, were arrested for criminal trespassing.

In a ruling announced late-Friday morning Pacific Time, the jury found all five defendants not guilty of obstructing a train but guilty of criminal trespassing. The not guilty of obstruction finding means there can be no claim of financial harm for restitution. The state did not ask for jail time on the trespassing charge, opting instead for a 90-day suspended sentence.

When the case went to court earlier this week it drew interest across the country—and particularly with climate change advocates—because it marked the first time a judge apparently allowed the “necessity defense” for climate-related civil disobedience in the United States. The necessity defense allows the five defendants to argue that their actions are justified based on the threat of climate change. However, in a move that would seemingly undercut the defendants’ position, the judge, before handing the case to the jury, did not give necessity defense instructions to the jury and disallowed the argument in closing statements.

The Delta 5 were successful in stopping a train for eight hours in the BNSF Delta rail yard on that September day. It was carrying crude oil from the Bakken Formation in Montana and North Dakota. According to an article in Mother Jones, the Pacific Northwest is becoming a fossil fuel corridor and hub for moving crude oil from Bakken, and Washington State is currently considering six new oil-by-rail facilities. In addition to increased carbon dioxide as a result of the expedited drilling that new rail hubs will enable, the oil can be dangerous to transport. In 2013, a train carrying Bakken shale oil derailed and exploded in Quebec, killing 47 people. In 2014, an oil train derailed in Seattle just a mile from Brockway’s daughter’s school, prompting Brockway to take action.

Recently, Brockway wrote about her obedience to future generations and call to action:

“As a mother, a Presbyterian and a lover of democracy, I know that I am ready and the time is now to take personal risks to defend our sacred land. I attended public hearings and submitted comments to prevent Washington State from becoming a fossil fuel corridor. I was heartened by large turnouts and public outcry, but I was informed that my state’s Department of Ecology would eventually grant these permits no matter the harm caused. I had tried to make change, but our window to stabilize our climate is slamming shut and I felt a deep call to act.”

In a sermon delivered at Woodland Park Presbyterian for Climate Justice Sunday before the trial, Brockway reflected on her decision.

“We felt we had to trespass on those who are trespassing against us because we saw no other things we could do to stop what is happening to this generation that will come after us,” says Brockway. “The thing I’m most afraid of is telling my daughter years later that I didn’t try hard enough to protect her future.”

The 221st General Assembly affirmed a review on the impact of expanded coal export projects, urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to perform full-blown Environmental Impact Statements in order to assess the impact on affected communities. In May 2015, PC(USA) Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons wrote to the Corps of Engineers raising concern over the expansion of coal transportation throughout the Pacific Northwest, and urged the Corps to deny a permit for a proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal Bulk Dry Goods Shipping facility at Cherry Point, Wash.

In addition to Brockway, the Delta 5 are Michael LaPointe, Patrick Mazza, Jackie Minchew, and Liz Spoerri.  

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More information on the Delta 5, and the trial, is available at their website

  1. Civil disobedience is a long tradition in our nation. It has helped bring about women's suffrage, an end to legalized racial discrimination, and protection for those in same gender relationships. Each of those efforts affected all of us, even though they were focused on a portion of our population. Climate action focuses on all of us, and not only in this nation, but in all creation! The Delta 5 are saints in my book!

    by Ellen Acton

    January 19, 2016

  2. Breaking the law is breaking the law, no matter what you call it. By encouraging people to break the law you are setting a very bad example.

    by Jimmie Weigel

    January 18, 2016

  3. What Abby said, how she guided those of us in the courtroom, how she so gently showed all present how dangerous it is to keep doing business as usual, makes her my hero!

    by Holly Hallman

    January 18, 2016

  4. Elder Abby Brockman is an example to us all! I am grateful for all the Presbyterian Foundation does for the PC (USA) and for all the Board of Pensions does for its members (which includes me), but I would be even more grateful to both renown Presbyterian institutions if they adopted an investment strategy that would minimize global warming and the use of tobacco.

    by Duncan Hanson

    January 18, 2016

  5. May we as a denomination find Abby's courage to stand against powers and principalities of the fossil fuel industry as they continue to knowingly destroy the climate and creation on which we all depend. One way we can act is to align our investments with our values by refusing to profit from that destruction and divesting from fossil fuels. Concur with overture 012.

    by Dan Terpstra

    January 18, 2016

  6. Let's begn a campaign to outlaw tobacco products in the USA. Great way to save lives and millions of healthcare dollars. Think about it. Pray about it.

    by William A. Hayward Sr.

    January 18, 2016

  7. The courage of Elder Abby Brockway and the Delta 5 must now be matched by courage from commissioners to the 222nd GA in Portland. It's time for the PCUSA to divest its fossil fuel holdings from the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation. As of January 9, ten presbyteries had advanced/concurred in Overture 012. More will concur in weeks ahead. You too can act for God's creation! See fossilfreepcusa.org.

    by Gary Payton

    January 16, 2016

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