Occupy Philly Protesters Acquitted of Obstructing Highway
Ten members of Occupy Philly were on trial today on charges that they obstructed a highway on October 23, 2011. The demonstration on trial was meant to be a message against police brutality and lasted the better part of that weekend. On Sunday, around noon, 15 Occupiers were arrested and the pre-trial for 10 of them was held this morning. It would end in acquittal and Occu-smiles all over 13th and Filbert. Below is a report from this morning; please be aware I was told to turn off my recorder and phone early on and will therefore provide few direct quotes.
The courthouse was packed at 9 a.m. I counted about 75 people in the audience. Although hype had surrounded the trial on Twitter and Facebook for days, few reporters were willing to sit in the pews. (Many would be waiting outside after it let out.)
The Commonwealth had one prosecutor on hand to argue the case, while eight represented the large Occupy Philadelphia crew. Philadelphia Police Captain William Fisher, of the civil affairs unit, was the one and only witness for the State. He wore a gray suit, pink shirt and testified he witnessed the situation on Eighth Street several times over the period of the weekend, though had come and gone and presumed his officers used common procedure when dealing with the potential offenders while he was not around. This would come to be the state’s case’s downfall.
Evidence was played around 10 a.m. in the form of a video taken by the Philadelphia Police audio/visual team. It showed the protesters in the middle of the street on Sunday morning, and police cars blocking Eighth Street to protect the demonstrators. The video went on for the better part of an hour, with the Commonwealth lawyer fast-forwarding through several parts. It showed protesters sitting in the streets, singing, chanting, “We are peaceful protesters,” and saying they will move as soon as police offer an apology to them for police brutality in the past. As was the norm, Fisher gave the protesters three warnings to leave the street and even offered them a place to demonstrate around the corner, but they weren’t going anywhere. Police then arrested them. The video was turned off.
At one point Fisher was asked by the defense who was around and supporting the protesters—was it civilians? Police? He said there weren’t any police on hand to protest with Occupy “unless Captain Lewis was around,” referring to former Philadelphia Police captain Ray Lewis, who joined the Occupy Wall Street movement this fall. Fisher said he did not know Lewis personally and wasn’t sure if you could really refer to the former Philadelphian as “noteworthy.”
The defense lawyers pointed out that it was actually the police who were obstructing the highway with their cars. And since Fisher wasn’t around when the protest began, and therefore not around when the police cars began obstructing the highway, he could not say for sure whether the 10 individuals on hand were the ones who originally blocked Eighth Street that weekend. Just that they were there at the end.
During a recess around 11:20 a.m., Occupy member Gina Apuzzo, who will face trial on April 12 for protesting inside a Center City Wells Fargo bank, said Occupy members taking their cases to trial is meant to send another message. “People don’t all realize that in Philadelphia, they’re the number one giver of foreclosures. They can mortgage people out of their homes. They stole $332 million from the Philadelphia school district, they engage in racist predatory lending…and people still look at it like it’s this thing that’s too big to fail,” she said, adding she wants to cast a “huge fucking light” on these issues. “That’s why I’m going to trial, but that’s just me.”
Back in the courtroom, the defense attorneys, beginning with Paul J. Hetznecker, began making their case for acquittal. First up: the idea that streets and sidewalks are both spots in which one may exercise their First Amendment rights.
Also brought up was the right of the police to end the protest, at noon Sunday, when they did. If this were 9 a.m. on Monday morning, perhaps there’d be precedent for stopping the protest, said Hetznecker, but even then, “the First Amendment trumps all.” He also laid the groundwork to say that the police actually don’t have the right to end a peaceful protest.
Attorney Lloyd Long explained the law definition of “obstruct” and said it means to make a highway unpassable. “These people didn’t do that,” he said. “Police did.”
A gigantic cardboard poster was brought out of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, at which time worldwide protests were spoken of, from Tunisia to the United States and now Syria. The Commonwealth lawyer stood and said all the First Amendment stuff aside, which he agreed with, this was about one thing: Obstructing a highway. And it happened. You’re not allowed to just sit in the middle of the street.
After the arguments were made, the judge said before he could even consider what rights the First Amendment grants to the protesters, he has to consider whether the people sitting in his courtroom were the same ones who began protesting on Saturday, when there was no footage and to which Fisher could not attest. “This court could not find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “Acquittal is granted.”
Reached after the acquittal, Atty. Lloyd Long told PW the decision was the right one. Though had the case gone on, “I think the judge would have found that there was a First Amendment right to assembly,” he said. “I think it sets precedent that the courts are the great equalizer. I think that in America, we’ve always relied on the courts to protect our rights, to vindicate our rights and find that there are times to stand out and say things that may be unpopular.”
Hetznecker, who will be representing Occupy protesters in future cases, said he felt empowered by the judge’s decision. “The judge did absolutely the right thing. I think it was a courageous re-affirmation of the First Amendment,” he said.