Nearly six months after their arrests during a December 17 Occupy Wall Street protest at Duarte Square, eight activists accused of trespassing finally went on trial Monday.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at Duarte Square back in December to mark the three-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. Those present included the OWS hunger strikers, who at the time, were in their fifteenth day of fasting.
On Monday, the Guardian’s Ryan Devereaux described a packed courthouse, filled with Occupy supporters who spilled out into the hallway, as they awaited to hear the testimonies of the New York City police officers responsible for arresting the protesters in a vacant lot owned by Trinity Church.
Trinity is one of the largest landholders in Manhattan, and the revenue from the church’s real estate holdings funds the parish’s work. This dual function has placed Trinity at the center of controversy when Occupy called upon the church to grant the movement sanctuary—indeed, Trinity provided a plethora of services to protesters in the initial months of the movement—but the church’s relationship with protesters has since grown strained. (Photo: retired bishop George Packard, one of the D17 arrestees.)
The church has claimed it’s seeking “non-criminal dispositions” and does not wish protesters to be sentenced to jail.
Attorneys for the defendants questioned the orders received by officers to make arrests, whether they noticed “open to the public” signs posted around the property and whether Trinity Church had the authority to order police to clear the area of demonstrators.
Trinity Church has said it is “not seeking retribution or punishment as a result of the OWS actions of December 17 at Duarte Square”.
In a statement posted to the church’s website Rector James Cooper claimed that Trinity had requested the district attorney seek “non-criminal dispositions without fines or incarceration be granted to all”.
“Trinity has welcomed and continues to welcome OWS members, like all members of its community, to its facilities in the Wall Street area”, he said.
Meanwhile, the so-called “NATO 3” appeared in a Chicago courtroom Tuesday to face terrorism-related charges accusing them of plotting to attack President Obama’s campaign headquarters and other targets with Molotov cocktails.
Defense lawyers say the three men (Jared Chase, Brian Church and Brent Betterly) plan to enter not-guilty pleas.
The accused, who originally belonged to the Occupy Miami chapter, claim the evidence presented against them was planted in their apartment.
Defense attorneys also attempted to cast aspersions on the word of the undercover police known as “Mo” and “Gloves,” who infiltrated the group before the NATO summit.
Attorneys for the men say they were entrapped by law enforcement, and that weapons recovered at their apartment were in fact left there by undercover agents.
“Occupy Miami has always been a peaceful movement,” said one local Occupy Miami participant who calls himself Bruce Wayne. “The culture of the movement is nonviolent…no drugs and alcohol.… we went to great lengths to assure our activities were legal.”
Wayne said his conversations with 27-year-old Jared Chase—one of the three arrested in Chicago—revealed no nefarious plans in the works. Wayne described Chase as “very calm and soft-spoken,” a person who “did a lot of listening.”
Prosecutors say the men assembled a wide variety of weapons, including a mortar, swords and knives with brass-knuckle handles, in addition to the Molotov cocktails (beer bottles filled with gasoline).
Chicago prosecutors find themselves in untested waters with the NATO 3 trial. Ordinarily, federal attorneys handle terrorism-related charges, but Illinois was one of at least thirty-six states to adopt anti-terrorism laws in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and the decision by the Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office to test Illinois’s law for the first time against activists has left many wondering why federal authorities aren’t more involved.
“These are completely unchartered waters,” said Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor. With nothing close to the manpower and expertise of the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, state prosecutors’ ability to win terrorist convictions is “very much in doubt,” he said.
Few state prosecutors elsewhere have even tried.
The New York-based Center on National Security says states have attempted to prosecute terrorism charges no more than a few dozen times, though precise figures were not available. By contrast, U.S. Department of Justice data indicates 403 people were convicted in federal courts for terrorism from 2001 to 2010 alone.
Attorney Sarah Gelsomino says prosecutors are using terrorism charges to try and scare off summit protesters. She compared the NATO 3 to a case in which eight activists were charged under Minnesota laws with conspiracy to riot before the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Those charges were later reduced or dropped.
“If these guys are really scary terrorists, why aren’t the feds on this?” Gelsomino said to WLS.
(Photos from Dec 17 rally by Allison Kilkenny)