After deal to avoid charges, pipeline protester reflects on 2017 incident and arrest

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PITTSFIELD — Jacob Renner says he'll do things differently if he ever protests again.

Renner, 26, was shocked with a stun gun and arrested during a pipeline protest in fall 2017 in Sandisfield.

Last month, the Great Barrington man reached an agreement with prosecutors that will leave his record clean of a handful of criminal charges, including assault and battery against a police officer.

This charge, as well as resisting arrest and disorderly conduct charges, will be continued without a finding and dismissed after six months of probation, said his attorney, Joseph Zlatnik, who represented Renner pro bono.

And a trespassing charge was dismissed immediately, Zlatnik added.

But Renner said that the series of fast-moving events after that moment when a pipeline security guard accused him of trespassing wasn't worth risking a conviction, especially since he asserts his innocence on some of the charges.

"I didn't trespass and I didn't assault," he said in a phone interview. "It's been over a year and a half of going to court, a lot of coordination with witnesses. At the end of the day, is it worth risking having a conviction when it all comes down to who sits on the jury?"

Renner had declined a plea deal last March that would have helped him avoid criminal convictions if he admitted to shoving the troopers. But he refused, claiming innocence, and decided to take his chances on a trial.

He is the last defendant to face charges related to six months of protests of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.'s Connecticut Expansion Project, a 13-mile natural gas spur that runs through about 4 miles in Sandisfield, including about 2 miles in Otis State Forest.

More than 100 arrests were made by state police pipeline details from the start of the build in May 2017. Controversy about the Kinder Morgan subsidiary's project ranged from outrage about tree cutting in the state forest to the more than $1 million paid to state police by the company to head off and manage trouble.

By fall, tension began building between demonstrators and state police, as a younger, more unpredictable group of water protectors began arriving to fight the pipeline.

Renner, who had spent four months protesting the Dakota Access pipeline in Standing Rock, N.D., was one of them. He was arrested Nov. 1. during a road blockade by nearly 30 mask-wearing activists, on a day that 55 troopers and two K-9 units had been deployed to a dirt road with access to the pipeline site and company headquarters.

Renner said he got too close to a newspaper delivery box at the entrance to the private driveway of a farm, when pipeline security called state police.

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From there, he says, he was surrounded by troopers, and police say they began to arrest him after he didn't remove his hands from his pockets quickly enough. Renner said he panicked and ran.

This is what sparked a chaotic chase during which two troopers say Renner shoved them, causing them to fall. Eventually, they subdued Renner by using a stun gun on his lower back.

That the trespassing charge was dismissed says something about the entire string of events, Zlatnik said.

"That is the genesis of the whole case," he added. "The fact that the commonwealth was willing to dismiss the trespass case outright indicates to me that they know that my client did not commit a crime in the first place that would justify his arrest."

He says the trespassing accusation shows a lack of "credibility, veracity and honor" on the part of the pipeline company.

State Police spokesman David Procopio said in an email that the Berkshire District Attorney's Office had explained its reasoning for its agreement with Renner.

"We understand and respect that various factors are taken under consideration by prosecutors in adjudicating cases like these," he wrote, noting that the six-month continuance without a finding "is not an uncommon disposition."

Despite his own client's experience, Zlatnik said everything had been mostly handled well by all parties and "presents a model of positive civil disobedience for the rest of the country to follow."

"You had half a year's worth of significant protest actions in a tiny little town," he said. "Police acted in a reserved way, and the DA's office exerted discretion. Everyone was acquitted, no one was injured, and there was no significant property damage. It was a model demonstration."

It didn't stop the pipeline, as some had hoped. But Zlatnik said he is not so sure it didn't have an impact.

"It changes the actuarial value of further pipelines," he said, noting all the money Tennessee Gas had to pay the state, attorneys and state police. "It could create a long-term financial disincentive."

And Renner, a landscaper who also teaches permaculture and grows his own food, says that just living a life of consciousness and conservation might be just as effective as lying in the road to stop a pipeline truck.

"Just doing all that is going to raise people's awareness," he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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