On Monday, June 18, seven Occupy Wall Street protesters were convicted for trespassing on property allegedly owned by Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal church and powerful Lower Manhattan landlord, during an action on December 17 of last year. An eighth defendant, Mark Adams, was convicted of trespassing, attempted criminal mischief and attempted possession of burglary tools. Adams is Occupy Wall Street’s first activist convicted and sentenced to jail time in a group trial.
The December action, called “Take Back the Commons” or simply “#D17,” was an effort to reestablish an encampment a month after the movement’s violent eviction from Zuccotti Park. It took place at Duarte Square, a plot of then-unused land a mile uptown from Trinity Church.
The trial lasted for more than a week and came after a series of political battles between Occupy Wall Street and Trinity, including protests, vigils, pickets, religious services, public statements by Chris Hedges and Daniel Berrigan, among others, and a petition with 14,000 signatures from all over the country demanding that Trinity not pursue the charges.
Because the eight cases were consolidated and tried at the same time, the defendants were represented by four lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild, New York City chapter. But despite having a team of civil rights attorneys, without a jury trial, these eight people’s fates rested on the whim of Judge Matthew Sciarrino.
The defense filed two subpoena requests for information from Trinity and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which the attorneys argued were not fully complied with and thus grounds to postpone the trial pending full compliance. Several Occupy-related cases of mass arrest, including the arrests during the raid and eviction of Zuccotti Park on November 15, have been postponed until the fall. But Judge Sciarrino decided that this trial would proceed despite the information missing from the defense’s case.
In a politically-charged trial like this, it was easy to feel as if the whole movement was on the stand — or perhaps already found guilty. The benches for spectators were packed with the defendants’ comrades, and a larger-than-usual contingent of court officers walked around the courtroom like proctors of a standardized test; there were always at least five in the room and up to seven at any given time, scrutinizing onlookers. Another five officers stood guard outside the courtroom. On the first day, one woman was thrown out for attempting to turn off the air conditioner in the packed, frigid room.
On the second day, the court officers, with the consent of the judge, emptied out two whole rows of spectators because someone in the vicinity had a cell phone or other device that was making a quacking sound. The court officers ordered almost half the spectators in the room to leave, telling them they could come back after lunch, and in the meantime to think about what they had done. When one of the defense attorneys objected, stating that this was a public trial, the judge simply “noted” it.
Another incident on the second day of the trial was troubling for many in the audience. A court officer in a white shirt came into the courtroom with a photograph in hand of an activist who was observing the trial. He showed it to the other court officers, saying “that’s the one,” pointing to the activist. This strange behavior was so disruptive that everyone in the back rows of the room could see and hear it, fostering paranoia in a way that seemed to be intentional. For the rest of the day the officers circled around this particular spectator.
Other forms of intimidation were more subtle but created a nagging sense of frustration and helplessness. The trial would alternate between two courtrooms in separate buildings, and the second time the case was held at 100 Centre Street, four benches which had been there previously had been removed or cordoned off so that members of the audience could not use them, effectively excluding more than a dozen people from observing the trial. The court officers had special orders to check cell phones outside the courtroom and disallowed any liquids, even water. These kinds of orders are highly unusual but have become the norm in OWS cases.
All this comes in contrast to a ruling made on June 7, just four days before the #D17 trials began. Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Federal District Court in Manhattan ruled in favor of OWS activists, allowing a class-action lawsuit to stand against members of the NYPD relating to the mass arrest of more than 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1. In his ruling, Judge Rakoff began by reflecting on the tradition of civil disobedience and how such acts can complicate the interpretation of the law:
What a huge debt this nation owes to its “troublemakers.” From Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King, Jr., they have forced us to focus on problems we would prefer to downplay or ignore. Yet it is often only with hindsight that we can distinguish those troublemakers who brought us to our senses from those who were simply troublemakers. Prudence, and respect for the constitutional rights to free speech and free association, therefore dictate that the legal system cut all non-violent protesters a fair amount of slack.
From the #D17 trial’s start to its finish, Judge Sciarrino didn’t appear to share Judge Rakoff’s leniency. Sciarrino emphasized that this case pitted two fundamental principles of U.S. law against one another: protection of private property and First Amendment rights. The judge’s decision was based on his assessment that private property was paramount to First Amendment rights in this particular case.
On Monday, after hearing closing arguments from the prosecution and the defense, Judge Sciarrino read the pre-written verdicts without any deliberation: guilty. Sciarrino denied motions made by the defense to adjourn sentencing, and with little hesitation he sentenced Mark Adams to 45 days in jail. (The district attorney had requested 30 days, plus probation.) Adams was led out of the courtroom immediately, and the sentencing continued. The other defendants — including an Episcopal bishop, George Packard — were sentenced to four days of community service. One defendant, Jack Boyle, who is currently refusing to take his HIV medication and was on hunger strike for 21 days, was told that if he did not complete the community service he would also serve 45 days in jail.
Though many of Adams’ comrades were aware that he might end up serving jail time, the shock when the sentencing came down was palpable. They expressed their determination to support Adams through the entirety of his stay behind bars. A visiting schedule is already being worked out so that he has at least two visits from friends per week. People are already making up care packages for him and helping to ensure that he is as comfortable as possible while imprisoned at Rikers Island.
Throughout the trial and the lead-up to it, questions swirled about the extent of Trinity’s cooperation with the prosecution and, by extension, the repression of the Occupy movement. While Rev. James Cooper, Trinity’s rector, has stressed his efforts in urging the District Attorney’s Office to offer non-criminal dispositions to defendants, his participation was necessary for the trial to go forward. While testifying, Cooper noted that civil disobedience was important to the fabric of protest movements, but he did not support it in this instance. He has also repeatedly cited the church’s support for many of the Occupy movement’s basic objectives.
Yet Trinity’s involvement with the apparatus of repression appears to precede December 17. On the morning of November 15, after the eviction of Zuccotti Park, Katie Davison, an Occupy activist and filmmaker, attended a meeting with members of Trinity’s leadership. “As the meeting finished up,” she remembers, “I lingered for a moment in conversation with Linda Hannick, the public relations director for Trinity. We were discussing the eviction and we had shown the clergy pictures of the violence we had witnessed at the hands of the police just hours before.”
Davison continues, “There was a break in the conversation, and Linda leaned forward and said just above a whisper, ‘So, you didn’t know they were coming?’ ‘No,’ I responded. She stared back at me, apparently surprised. I guess she had known all along.”
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