Harriet Nestel, left, confers with her fellow members of the Shut It Down Affinity Group who are on trial in Windham District Court in Brattleboro.(Zachary
Harriet Nestel, left, confers with her fellow members of the Shut It Down Affinity Group who are on trial in Windham District Court in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
Tuesday January 22, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- When six Vermont Yankee nuclear plant protesters were convicted of trespassing in November, they vowed that they would not pay a combined $3,264 in fines and court costs.

As it turns out, the court will get its money anyway.

The Shut It Down Affinity Group has announced that "spontaneous" donations from supporters will cover the full amount. The group plans to deliver the cash to the court clerk Jan. 30 during a rally in Brattleboro.

For Hattie Nestel, one of those convicted in the rare prosecution of Yankee protesters, the donations show the strength of a community of people who oppose the plant's continued operation.

"We do have a huge amount of support," the Athol, Mass., resident said Monday. "They're definitely behind us."

The six Massachusetts women -- all of whom had protested at the Vernon plant previously -- chained themselves to the Vermont Yankee gate on Aug. 30, 2011. The protest was nonviolent.

But officials have said the timing of the incident played a role in their decision to take the case to trial: It happened as residents and emergency responders were coping with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which had caused heavy flooding just two days earlier.

The protesters denied that the timing was deliberate.

But they also acknowledged that they were on Yankee property that day and refused to leave. During a one-day trial in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, they argued that their actions were justified because the plant is unsafe and continues to operate despite the state's ongoing -- and so far unsuccessful -- attempts to close it.

A jury found all six women guilty of trespassing. Along with Nestel, the others convicted were Frances Crowe, Nancy First and Patricia "Paki" Wieland, all of Northampton; Ellen Graves of West Springfield; and Mary Kehler of Colrain.

Judge John Wesley imposed a $350 fine on each, and the total came to $544 with court costs added. All said they would not pay.

"I asked the judge to give me jail time," Nestel recalled on Monday.

There was no threat of a prison sentence, however: The fines eventually would have been referred to a collection agency.

That won't happen now that Shut It Down Affinity's new "fine committee" has the cash to cover the protesters' penalties.

The committee was not set up to solicit donations, Shut It Down Affinity member Marcia Gagliardi said. Rather, it was formed to handle money sent after supporters heard news of the convictions.

"The individuals who were convicted never requested assistance," said Gagliardi, an Athol resident who was not involved in the court case but serves on the fine committee.

There were about 50 donations, Gagliardi said. Most came from Vermont and Massachusetts, though there also were a few from New Hampshire and one from New York.

"Within a day (of the conviction), there were offers to address the fine if the women in the group would allow the fine to be addressed," Gagliardi said. "There was a lot of conversation within the group about allowing the fine to be addressed."

Nestel admitted some "ambivalence" given the group's ideological opposition to paying the fines. And she still believes the protesters had a duty to block the Vermont Yankee gate.

"The crux of the matter is, we shouldn't have been found guilty," she said. "It's ridiculous."

Nonetheless, Nestel and others eventually agreed to allow the donations to be used to pay the fines.

"I think people really wanted to support us in that way," Nestel said. "It was a way to acknowledge that community."

Gagliardi summed up the prevailing sentiment this way: "If there is a cost, six women should not bear it by themselves."

She added that "It's important to everyone that it be seen as a peoples' payment."

Shut It Down Affinity members expect to deliver the money to the Superior Court clerk's office before a rally planned for noon Jan. 30 in Brattleboro.

The event will happen at Wells Fountain near the courthouse and is expected to include speakers, a brass band and a singing group called "The Raging Grannies." The gathering is billed as "a celebration and rally highlighting the community that wants to shut down Vermont Yankee."

Nestel claims that community is growing.

"Almost every time we go (to Vermont Yankee) now, we have at least one new person as part of our group," she said.

Nestel vowed to return to the plant this year.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.