It was standing room only in a Manhattan Criminal Courtroom on the morning of Nov. 3 for the first court appearances of Occupy Wall Street protesters. Fifty-three of the 63 defendants who appeared in court today declined a deal from prosecutors and opted to proceed to trial. The crowd was a mix of police, members of the media, people wearing bright green hats identifying themselves as attorneys for the National Lawyer’s Guild and dozens who looked to have been sleeping in Zuccotti Park for weeks.
Those making an appearance at the Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Centre St. were part of the first mass arrest, which occurred when Occupy Wall Street Protesters marched to Union Square on Sept. 24. That was the day when four women were pepper sprayed by police.
The first defendant called to the stand Thursday was MetroFocus editor John Farley, who was arrested while interviewing two of the women who were pepper sprayed. Farley’s charge of disorderly conduct was the only charge dismissed outright. Assistant District Attorney Michele Bayer read from a letter that WNET President Neal Shapiro sent to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. on Monday, requesting a dismissal. “As head of WNET, the former president of NBC News, and a lifelong news producer and television news executive, I am gravely concerned about the First Amendment implications of the New York City Police Department’s actions in this matter,” the letter said.
MetroFocus editor John Farley, arrested while covering the Occupy Wall Street protest, gets disorderly conduct charges dismissed to a round of applause from the courtroom. Pool video courtesy of NY1.
Presiding Judge Neil Ross explained that nearly all of those appearing Thursday had been charged with disorderly conduct, with two protesters also charged with resisting arrest. Ross said the district attorney would offer protesters an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, known as an ACD.
A defendant who accepts an offer of an ACD does not have to decide whether to plead guilty or not guilty. Instead, if the defendant avoids arrest for a certain period of time, then all charges will be dismissed and the case record sealed. For the Occupy Wall Street protesters, this probationary term is likely to be six months. But, as MetroFocus reported earlier this week and as National Lawyers’ Guild defense attorney Martin Stolar explained, “It means that if you get arrested in the next six months you can be tried and face more serious consequences.”
That’s not a particularly appealing option for people who want to continue to protest and in doing so thus stand a reasonable chance of being arrested again.
Many of the protesters felt they had not committed a crime. “In the interest of justice we will address the fact that you were told to stay on the sidewalk and wouldn’t be arrested, and low and behold you were arrested,” said Stolar, alluding to how police corralled the protesters — and at least two incidental bystanders — into nets after the protesters had followed police directions to move out of the street.
Recent Fordham University graduate Johanne Sterling is one of those who choose to go to trial rather than accept an ACD.
“I don’t feel I should take it just because it’s convenient,” said Sterling. She has continued to participate in Occupy Wall Street as well as Occupy the Bronx on weekends and said, “I’m hoping I don’t get arrested again because it really sucks.” But concern about being arrested again while protesting wasn’t the main factor in her decision to reject the ACD. Rather, like many of the protesters, she said she wants her day in court because, “I strongly feel like the charges brought against me were erroneous.”
Asked why he wanted to proceed to trial, Wesleyan University freshman Ross Levin gave a succinct response: “Because I’m not guilty and my arrest wasn’t legitimate.” Crushed on the crowded bench in the courthouse lobby next to her son, Levin’s mother, who traveled from their hometown of Philadelphia in support, smiled and said she was proud of her son.
The protesters who refused the prosecution’s offer will appear in court for pre-trial hearings on Jan. 9.
While many of Thursday’s defendants were students or recent college grads, Ross — who also presided over the case against protesters arrested at the 2004 Republican National Convention — claimed to recognize a few familiar faces as seasoned protesters, including a petite, ebullient former social worker with graying bobbed hair name Ann Shirazi. In court, Shirazi cheerfully sported a large button identifying herself as a member of the “Granny Peace Brigade.” Her t-shirt read “We Will Not Be Silent.” She too is looking forward to her day in court.