So, it was trial day for 31 defendants arrested on occupy Philly’s eviction night. I made it to the trial about an hour after it began at 9am-ish. Here is what I saw and heard to the best of my “remembering ability”
I arrived and the courtroom was packed, I had to scan the room for a while until I could see an empty spot in one of the “pews.” I was on the far right of the room and could barely see the video projection which was showing various moments from the entire night which had been recorded by the Philadelphia police department. The prosecution was playing the video and pausing it now and then to make remarks or ask the city's lone witness, Captain Fisher, questions then the video would resume with occasional fast forwards.
I was surprised that we were watching footage that was shot around 1:30am since the arrests in question did not happen until after 4:30 am. We got to see the person who climbed a tree on the plaza and, for a while, refused to come down. Eventually she descended and was not arrested. She said “Thank you, have a good night” as she passed the police. We got to see the police shredding the symbolic tent which had been placed in the intersection across from what had been, just moments before, our little village at the foot of city hall. We even got to see the police ordering everyone on to the sidewalk and then police horses charging those same people minutes after they had complied with the police's orders. At this point I knew that the prosecution was going to flub it. They would have done better if their opening statement was to say nothing and sit back down. The video they showed was more damaging than helpful to their case. The first 15 minutes I was there I did not know if the lawyer was a defense lawyer or a prosecution lawyer since half the questions he asked Captain Fisher only seemed to aid in the defense of the occupiers. For instance, he asked Fisher if other city services were present. Fisher said that the sanitation department and fire departments were there among others. Fisher mentioned that fire hoses were extended across the street to wash down the plaza. This would later come to haunt the prosecution.
Eventually the prosecution had made it to around 2:30 am or so and the arrests were still more than two hours away. The defense objected to all of the footage being shown since it consisted of events that took place hours before the arrests and did not seem to show more than two or three of the 31 defendants. The Judge interjected shortly thereafter to ask how much more video he would be showing before they got to the arrests. She stated that she was willing to watch whatever the prosecution wanted to play. The prosecution said they would make an attempt to fast forward to the most relevant parts. The prosecution got to the arrests and then began identifying the arrastees one by one as the video progressed. At one point, just before pausing the video, an occupier who was being arrested at that moment asked on film about whether she would get the “little cheese sandwiches” which the City of Philadelphia so generously provides to it's inmates. The people in the court room could not help but laugh – the Judge reprimanded us. After pausing and identifying the first 14 defendants the Judge pointed out that there were 31 descendants and asked if both the defense and prosecution could agree that everyone arrested was indeed who they said they were. Both sides agreed.
Eventually the prosecution finished up their video show and questions for Captain Fisher. The defense took over. One of the questions asked of Captain Fisher was when there had first been a discussion of arrests. Fisher admitted that there had been a discussion about arrests hours before the arrests eventually took place. Occupy's lawyers were smart in that they just let that statement sit and speak for itself, to be brought up later in the trial. Fisher also said that the police had intended to arrest the marchers at some point after they had left the vicinity of city hall plaza and were several blocks north on broad street near the inquirer building but had been unable to get their forces into place. The defense then asked if there was a reason they had decided to begin the blockade and, later, arrests after the march had turned onto 15th street. Fisher said that it would allow them to get into position. The lawyer then paraphrased Fisher saying “is it correct to say that it was a tactical decision because you could blockade both ends of the block and keep the marchers corralled in?” There was no answer. After a couple of more brief questions we were all allotted a break. The Judge sternly warned us that she would not tolerate noise in her courtroom and that we needed to be silent once we re-entered the courtroom and that we had 5 minutes.
Upon the Judge's return the courtroom was called to order. The defense continued where they had left off. They returned to the question of what other city services had been present for the eviction. Fisher listed them again. The defense then asked where they were located. After some hemming and hawing by Captain Fisher it was admitted that they were also present on and blocking 15th Street. Again, the defense let that speak for itself and moved on. After a bit the questioning moved on to Captain Fisher sating (replayed on the video) “Move onto the sidewalk OR be arrested” - the 'or' was important because it implied that if they did move onto the sidewalk they would not be arrested. Everyone who had been marching in the street complied with the order and moved onto the sidewalk, half moving onto the eastern side of the street and half onto the western.
Questions were asked as to whether a dispersal order was made by the police. The video was clear that there was not. One lawyer pointed out that “mysteriously” only the occupiers on the eastern sidewalk were arrested while all those standing on the western sidewalk were not subject to arrest and eventually dispersed once they were able to. The Judge stated that she “could see the video projection quite well” and that she was very observant. Additional questioning of Fisher was about whether the occupiers could have dispersed. Video stills were shown that indicated that the sidewalks on both ends of the block were barricaded by bicycle cops. Captain Fisher stated that “they could have walked around them at any time” - though walking off of the sidewalk and into the street had been declared illegal. This was the only time I saw the Judge lose her poker face – she shot Fisher a quizzical and withering look that lasted maybe a second or two. Finally, Captain Fisher was asked who had been giving him orders so far. He said a higher up had been doing so. When asked who that higher up was he stated he could not remember (!)
The defense asked to consult with their clients and a 15 minute break was granted. The Judge stated that “unless one of my body parts falls off I WILL be back here in 15 minutes and I will not tolerate noise in my courtroom once I return!” She had previously told us not to laugh so we tried hard not to. A ton of us descended the elevators for a quick smoke break (I have never seen so many smokers as I have in Occupy!) Most agreed that things were going well but we were still hesitant to predict the outcome because so much can depend on the Judge but we did generally feel encouraged. We hastily finished our ciggies and went back through the metal detectors and up to room 305.
The defense asked for an acquittal. The first lawyer to speak made an appeal based upon the 1st amendment. He made a wonderful speech but he did say that “the liberty bell has been, not symobolicaly, but literally ringing for the last 200 years” which gave several of us reason to chuckle after the case was over and we were outside. Each lawyer handed of to the next lawyer the next piece of the argument for acquittal. The second main point was to explicitly state the law concerning disorderly conduct; threat of violence, threat of property destruction, obscenity, unreasonable noise – but the key part of the law is that it is done “without purpose.” There was no threat of violence or property damage (sure there was some obscenity thrown around on the video but that was by both cops and occupiers) and an argument was made that any excessive noise and the march itself did, indeed, have a purpose – specifically, expressing one's grievances against the government. The third main piount was that there was no obstruction of traffic because A: once the march had been stopped by the police blockade everyone complied with the order to get on the sidewalk and B: the city itself had already closed 15th street to all vehicular traffic for hours with police, sanitation and fire department vehicles as well as the fire department hoses which were at that time still stretched across 15th street as the fire department washed away our filthy disease ridden presence(sarcasm intended.)
The prosecution made a brief argument that there was legal precedent for balancing freedom of speech with the need to maintain basic civil order.
The Judge was prepared to make her ruling regarding the acquittal. She responded to the argument that the crowd was, as Fisher had previously stated “frustrated” and “a mob” by quoting several people seen during the viewing of the video who were very polite and compliant including those who were arrested. She even cited the woman in the tree and her statement to the police of “Thank you, have a good night.” Next the Judge pointed out that there was no apparent threat of violence or property destruction and that even when weighing the balance between order and the first amendment, when there is any doubt, the first amendment should take precedent. Finally she addressed the concept of blocking traffic and stated that there was no traffic to be blocked since the road was already blocked by the city for hours and that everyone complied with the order to get on the sidewalk so even if that had been the case they were no longer blocking anything when they were arrested. The final charge to be addressed was that of conspiracy and she basically stated that if there is no crime there is no conspiracy. She announced that all charges were dismissed!
We gathered outside the courthouse and had a couple of mic checks, thanked some of the lawyers and heard thanks from them as well, posed with the giant cover of time magazine's person of the year “the protester” that the lawyers had brought as a piece of evidence, a person or two spoke to the one TV news outlet that showed up and then everyone slowly dispersed either alone or, more often, in small groups, to celebrate a wonderful day!