The Greenpeace protesters who dangled from the Fred Hartman bridge, causing part of the Houston Ship Channel to close, were free to walk out of federal court thanks to having been granted a Personal Recognizance bond.
Four of the protesters were in the 174th Criminal Court Friday with Judge Hazel B. Jones presiding. They were released on the PR bond after facing a state felony charge of impairing or interrupting the operations of critical infrastructure. A PR bond essentially means the protesters were not required to have any money to be released from custody, but do have to agree to appear at a future court date.
Travis Nichols, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said the protesters spent Thursday and Friday nights in jail.
The 22 defendants that came from 13 states including the District of Columbia also came before Magistrate Judge Dena Palermo of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas Saturday.
Each was charged with one count of aiding and abetting obstruction of navigable waters. Each requested counsel and all pleaded not guilty. If convicted of the misdemeanor charges, each faces up to a year in federal prison and a possible $2,500 fine.
U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick’s office said the protesters are being federally charged because they “obstructed the waterway by rappelling off and suspending themselves from the Fred Hartman Bridge over the San Jacinto River.”
In addition to the felony charge, the protesters were also charged with criminal trespass and obstructing a highway.
Criminal trespass is a Class B misdemeanor. If convicted, those charged could face up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
The 22 protesters are expected to be in front of Judge Jones again at 9 a.m. in the 174th court on Dec. 6.
Nicole Debord, an attorney for Greenpeace, said they are ready to fight the charges.
“We’re looking forward to mounting a vigorous defense,” Debord said. “We believe this critical infrastructure statute is ripe for challenge. We look forward to seeing what evidence the district attorney’s office thinks they have that makes this charge appropriate. We are eager to see what they’ve got so we can challenge it.”
The protesters lowered themselves using ropes from the bridge about 6:30 a.m. Thursday. One of the 22 activists, Mike Herbert, 36, of Hyattsville, Maryland, talked about why they chose the bridge over the Houston Ship Channel.
“I grew up in the East Texas oil field, a place where the oil industry touches everything,” Herbert said. “I know how much power oil executives have over our democracy. That’s why I’m taking action to shut down the Houston Ship Channel, the largest fossil fuel thoroughfare in the country. The oil industry has spent millions of dollars to convince the American people - including the community I grew up in - that we can’t thrive without them. This just isn’t true. We are here because we believe a world beyond oil is possible, we just have to fight for it.”
The protest was timed to coincide with the Democratic presidential candidate debate later that night. However, the protest resulted in a major traffic snarl. Emergency personnel kept an eye on the protesters as well as prevented vehicles from getting too close to the Greenpeace folks.
Baytown resident Connie Beene was one of many trapped in the traffic jam.
“Due to the protesters on the Fred Hartman Bridge, it took me three hours to get home,” Beene said. “The traffic reminded me of when we evacuated for Hurricane Rita in 2005. It was horrible and Highway 225 and La Porte had cars lined up on the shoulder that were stopped with no place to go. I was just glad to get home by 8 p.m. I am sure there were people that did not get home until much later.”
Some have criticized Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez for taking too long to remove the protesters, including Congressman Brian Babin. It took until 12:30 a.m. Friday morning before the last protester was taken into custody. Many of the protesters that hung from the bridge had to be lowered into waiting boats below.
The protesters were then taken ashore in handcuffs, accompanied by a deputy. Some had been hanging from the bridge for nearly 12 hours.
Gonzalez addressed the criticism on his Twitter account.
“While the ongoing protest on the Fred Hartman Bridge has created major disruptions, we will not needlessly endanger lives of our first responders or anyone else just to resolve a temporary situation,” Gonzalez said. “We are assessing and preparing for a number of contingencies. In the meantime, I want to thank the many first responder agencies working with us to bring this situation to a safe conclusion. At the appropriate time, those responsible will be prosecuted to the fullest.”
HCSO led the investigation and arrests with the participation and assistance of Harris County Precinct 8 Constables’ Office, U.S. Coast Guard, Houston Police Department, FBI, Texas Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration and fire departments in Houston and Baytown. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark McIntyre is prosecuting the case.
A crash also occurred on the bridge the morning of the protest, and it was apparently caused by it. The sheriff’s office said charges would be considered in relation to this incident.