Meet the Lobstermen Arrested for Blocking a Coal Freighter—and the DA Who Kept Them Out of Jail

Last spring, these men were in a small white lobster boat anchored to block the path of an oncoming freighter hauling 40,000 tons of coal. They didn't expect the district attorney to support them.

Photo by Shutterstock.

This article appears in Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine.

Ken Ward: Taking Direct Action by Blocking Coal Freighter

Ken WardMay 15th, 2013, was a crisp, clear day in Somerset, Mass.—perfect for a day on the water. But Ken Ward and his friend Jay O’Hara weren’t fishing. They were in a small white lobster boat anchored to block the path of an oncoming freighter hauling 40,000 tons of coal.

Many years of involvement with environmental activism has taught Ward, 57, the importance of direct speech and facing up to reality. “We’ve been in an extended debate over whether there is such a thing as climate change,” says Ward. “Well, the West Antarctic ice sheet is in unstoppable collapse. I don’t think we need to know anything more.”

It was the sight of the Brayton Point Power Plant on a drive to Newport that led Ward to take dramatic action. “It was just such a blatant, gigantic problem...It seemed like I should do something.”

Ward is convinced that civil disobedience is an important part of fundamental change. “It’s far better to go with smaller numbers acting with purpose than it is to get large numbers and dumb down the problem.”

Ward, O’Hara, and the good ship Henry David T. blocked the coal freighter for almost eight hours before they left as instructed by the Coast Guard. For Ward, it seemed like a good start.


Jay O’Hara: Finding “A Way Opening” in Faith Tradition

Jay O'HaraIn his work with grassroots environmental movements in Massachusetts, Jay O’Hara went through normal advocacy channels like lobbying the legislature and working with students. But for O’Hara, 32, these methods were too slow for the urgency of the climate crisis. “I realized that this transactional route of change that we expect from a functional democracy wasn’t going to cut it for this issue,” explains O’Hara.

As a Quaker, O’Hara has always liked his faith’s concept of “a way opening.” When Ken Ward came to him with the idea of doing a coal blockade, O’Hara saw a way for transformative change was opening—and it was impossible to say no.

The blockade planning process gave O’Hara insight into how fear causes people to avoid direct action. “Sometimes, when we step out in faith to do the right thing,” says O’Hara, “things actually turn out way better than you could have expected.”

O’Hara isn’t sure what the future holds, but he does know that he has a responsibility to communicate that humanity stands at a critical juncture. “Folks who understand the existential nature of the crisis need to start living their lives in some way that represents the truth.”


Sam Sutter: Considering Public Safety in Court Decision

Sam SutterIt was a surprise to many in September 2014 when Sam Sutter, the District Attorney for Bristol, Mass., made the unusual decision to reduce the charges against O’Hara and Ward. Even more unusual was his statement about how climate change, “one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced,” influenced his decision. While speaking on the steps of the Fall River District Court, Sutter held up Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”

Sutter says he disagrees with any unlawful action. But in the lobster boat blockade case, he understood O’Hara and Ward’s actions weren’t the only factors to consider. “I think that the climate crisis is a public safety issue,” Sutter explains. The most responsible decision, in his view, involved recognizing the inherent danger of Brayton Point’s carbon emissions. “I have a duty to uphold the law, and they did break the law,” says Sutter. “But I also did what I did because of my view of the climate change crisis.”

Sutter’s decision sets a precedent for public officials to take a stand against practices that accelerate climate change. He says he’s advocating for the planet and hopes others will do the same.