Midland protestors reject bargain, want day in court

Five demonstrators arrested for criminal trespassing in July at the Midland Sewage Plant rejected a plea bargain Tuesday that would have dropped the charges against them.

The protestors, who include two Syracuse University students, decided that agreeing to the plea bargain would have made it seem that they had done something wrong.

‘Basically what we believe is the real crime is the crime the city is committing against the south side of Syracuse and really the entire city of Syracuse,’ said Curtis Rumrill, a senior majoring in music composition and one of the five arrested. ‘Really it doesn’t have any benefit to us, and it is just a big hassle. It is exclusively to say that we stand by our actions and we believe they were just actions.’

The protestors, dubbed the Oxford Five because they were arrested for blocking the demolition of a building for the sewer’s construction on Oxford Street, rejected an agreement that would have dropped the trespassing charges – each misdemeanors – if the five promised to stay out of trouble for six months, do 50 hours of community service and pay a $50 court fee.

Instead, the protestors will submit a request for dismissal at their next court date on Nov. 5, arguing that their actions were not really a crime, but an act of civil disobedience in order to halt the construction of the sewer plant, which they describe as an act of environmental racism.

‘Say there is a crime going on in the middle of the street and you have to step out in the middle of the street to stop the crime,’ Rumrill said. ‘So you step in the middle of the street to stop a burglary and you jaywalk in the process. You violate a law in a much more minor way to prevent a much more major crime from occurring.’

Midland has met resistance from residents and their supporters since its beginnings in 1998. Protestors claim that the plant, currently designed to be an aboveground system, will have adverse health effects to the surrounding community that is predominately black. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently investigating a claim made by the Syracuse University public interest law firm that the plant violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

‘Which is the more serious crime, violating the Civil Rights Act, committing environmental racism or trespassing?’ Rumrill said. ‘We definitely stand by our actions and we feel that any court of law interested in justice would not convict us.’

If the court refuses to dismiss the case, the protestors hope to be tried in front of a jury at a later date, something they believe will keep the Midland debate in the spotlight, Rumrill said. This is especially important as things get cold and outdoor protesting becomes less feasible, said Jake Eichten, a junior majoring in sociology.

‘We want to push it into a political trial, basically,’ Eichten said. ‘Something had to be done. Here is an opportunity that presented itself and we’re seizing on it.’

With the trial, the group hopes to start a public discourse that may help put popular pressure on Midland, which has also been scrutinized by both U.S. senators from New York.

‘It is a worthwhile cause, getting the word out,’ said Mark Breen, a local activist who is part of the five arrested, ‘because if it is not going to contribute legally or politically at least it will be known what the people want.’

The group is receiving support from the Partnership for Onondaga Creek, a local group that has helped lead protest efforts against Midland.

‘We’re there to support people who are making a statement about the Civil Rights Act and civil rights in our community,’ said Zac Moore, a graduate student in social science and member of the Partnership for Onondaga Creek. ‘Obviously we’ll provide moral support to these groups of folk who feel that what they were doing appealed to a higher degree of justice.’

Moore said the Partnership has set up a support fund to assist the five with legal fees.

For now, the Partnership and others involved with the Midland protest are planning a community forum Tuesday at 3 p.m. at Hendricks Chapel with four speakers who will speak out against the sewage plant.

The speakers include Lois Gibbs, a Love Canal activist and executive director of the Center for Health and Environmental Justice, Joanne Shenandoah, a Grammy award-winning American Indian performer, Sandra Steingraber, an expert on toxicology, and Vernice Miller-Travis, an environmental consultant to the EPA.

‘For us, each of these people go on CNN,’ Moore said. ‘They don’t get any bigger.’

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