FAIRFIELD — Police arrested six protesters in downtown Fairfield Thursday evening, who tried to block a Pan Am train, expected to pass through town, by erecting a makeshift wooden scaffold on the railroad tracks.
Arrested for criminal trespass around 9:35 p.m. were: Elizabeth Catherine Catlin, 23, of Brunswick; James Hall Freeman, 64, of Verona Island; Sarah Linneken, 35, of Brunswick; Read Debow Brugger, 63, of Freedom; Douglas M. Bowen, 67, of Porter; and Robert Edward Shaw, 66, of Belfast.
A larger group of about 30 protesters grouped around the scaffold for about two hours, drawing dozens of police officers from Fairfield Police Department, Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department, Maine State Police and other agencies.
A crowd of onlookers, who expressed differing opinions about the protest, also gathered to watch the drama unfold.
The protesters, led by a group calling itself 350 Maine, arrived around 7:30 p.m., first blocking off a Main Street intersection near the tracks with traffic cones and a large banner. After police intervened, they walked about a block to the railroad tracks and erected the barricade, which consisted of two large posts connected by smaller crossbeams, bearing a sign that read, “Stop fracked oil. Maine earth first.”
The action was taken to call attention to climate change and prevent about 70,000 barrels of crude oil from reaching New Brunswick, according to Meaghan LaSala, one of the protest’s organizers and a member of 350 Maine, a group interested in climate change.
According to LaSala, a train carrying 70,000 barrells of crude oil from North Dakota was scheduled to travel through Fairfield on the track, which is owned by Pan Am Railways.
Official confimation was unavailable late Thursday of LaSala’s claim. No train was seen during the protest.
“We believe the moment we’re in in terms of climate change is a dramatic one and it calls for dramatic action,” said LaSala, a 26-year-old resident of Portland who works in Unity.
A group member said they had not notified police in advance of the action and had brought the scaffold components in a van.
Some of the protesters wore costumes that looked like white hazardous material protection suits, and some carried signs with slogans such as, “Trains for people, not oil.” The protesters recited chants calling for an end to fracking in North Dakota and explaining their reasons for protesting.
The police, under the leadership of acting Chief Joe Massey, who is also the chief of the Waterville Police Department, established a perimeter around the intersection and the scaffold with yellow tape, and then asked everyone inside to leave the area inside.
“It was kind of difficult to tell the protesters apart from people in the neighborhood,” he said.
Once the protesters had been separated from the onlookers, a fire truck was brought in and parked several feet from the scaffold, which Massey said was done to provide more light.
Protestors were given a 10-minute warning to leave the area, followed by warnings at five minutes and one minute.
All but six of the protesters complied with police orders to leave and watched from outside the area.
A group of police approached the six remaining protesters around 9:50 p.m. and Massey asked each one in turn if he or she would leave rather than be arrested. Each remained, and was arrested and charged with criminal trespass.
Massey said he didn’t anticipate any other criminal charges but said he would refer the matter to the district attorney, to consider billing those arrested for the cost of the police response.
As the individuals were taken, one by one, to a police vehicle, they were cheered by the protesters remaining on the sidelines.
The interaction between protesters, spectators and police was relaxed and cordial throughout the protest.
Massey described all of the protesters, even those who were arrested, as very cooperative and polite. He noted that they freely engaged in conversation with police and reassured them they intended a non-violent action.
“We wanted to approach this very non-aggressively,” he said.
At one point, as the protesters were being arrested, the scaffold began to fall, prompting a brief period of cooperation as protesters and police worked together to stabilize it.
Those watching mostly treated the spectacle as entertainment. One young father who began to return to his home was called back by his wife, who pointed out that their son didn’t want to leave yet. Others chatted with neighbors and speculated aloud about what might happen next.
Spectator David Grant said no message was worth what he called a waste of police resources.
“They’re really disgracing the town of Fairfield,” he said. “They could have gone a lot different route. A more appropriate route.”
Another resident, Kim Moulton, disagreed, saying the action was a legitimate way to bring attention to a serious cause.
“Public dissent is a good thing,” she said. “It does draw attention to things.”
Trains running through Maine carry crude oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, where it is fracked, or extracted by pumping fluids into the ground to force out the oil.
LaSala said the process pollutes air and water in surrounding communities.
She said the protest Thursday was part of a national movement called Fearless Summer, whose goal is to expose the dangers of extreme forms of energy extraction.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287