Last Thursday I went down to the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center to do court support for the people arrested during the November 30 raid of Occupy L.A.
Court support has become an essential element in the culture of Occupy L.A, just as in other activist cultures. Fellow activists show up to demonstrate to judges, juries and members of the bar that the accused do not stand alone. It also means that everything that happens in court will be noted and publicized.
This feeling of solidarity can be profound. After making bail following my November 17 arrest in front of Bank of America, I was released into the pre-dawn street only to find a group of occupiers -- many of them strangers to me -- waiting with coffee and donuts and hugs.
So it was that I felt a special responsibility to show similar support to those arrested during the eviction of Solidarity Park. At the same time, since charges against me were never filed, I wanted to follow the cases in order to finally hear some legal arguments for and against the legality of Occupy L.A.'s political activity.
After passing though the metal detector, I followed familiar faces to Department 52, where Judge Robert Vandret was assigning individual cases to various other courtrooms, some located in the same building but others sent as far afield as West Covina and Pomona.
The Occupy L.A. legal team wanted to make sure not to lose track of any of the cases, and so one woman called for volunteers to follow each particular case and take notes about its progress.
I volunteered to follow the case of Martha Lewis, a 56 year old soup kitchen worker who had gone to prison in 2003 as a result of a downtown L.A. protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She was now being charged with failure to disperse from what the LAPD declared was an unlawful assembly (California Penal Code 409).
A Warm Welcome
When we entered Department 111, where her case was to be heard before Judge Drew E. Edwards, the room was empty but for the Judge, a Deputy District Attorney and other court staff.
I don't know if it was Martha's purple "Los Angeles Catholic Workers" t-shirt, her naturally greying hair or her sandals-and-socks combo -- or even my own beard -- but the Deputy D.A. took one look at us and sarcastically remarked, "Gee, I wonder what this trial is for?"
The Deputy D.A., whose name I overheard was Ashley, proceeded to chat with her colleagues about the penalties that the OLA protesters stood to face, and seemed eager to see them sent to jail.
"I have no sympathy," said Ashley.
"Well of course," said the court reporter. "You are a D.A."
"But it's not because I'm a D.A.", Ashley told the court reporter. "It is because I just can't stand the smell."
She said this loudly, just feet away from where Martha and I sat down in the otherwise quiet courtroom.
She then turned around to regard us, as if curious about the effect of her insult.
I couldn't resist. "We smell you, too," I said.
I immediately regretted saying this, because I feared that it might further antagonize the prosecuting lawyer in Martha's case. I was not there to make things more difficult for her. Luckily, however, it turned out that Ashley was not the prosecuting lawyer in this case.
Jury selection was a fascinating temperature check of general attitudes about Occupy L.A. A handful of potential jurors claimed never to have heard of Occupy L.A., while many of others claimed to have heard of it but had yet to form any opinion.
Those who had already formed opinions about the movement fell into unsurprising categories. A retired policeman, the wife of a policeman, and a man who worked in "TV news" all expressed prejudice against Occupy L.A. and were eventually excused as jurors by the defense lawyer.
The prosecutor, on the other hand, found about twelve of the potential jurors objectionable, including a woman of Chinese descent whose aunt had been arrested in Tiananmen Square, a Latina whose relative had been shot by police in her country of origin, and a young man who expressed concern about the detainee provisions of the recently signed-into-law National Defense Authorization Act. These, along with anyone who expressed general sympathy with Occupy L.A. were asked to be "thanked and excused" by the prosecutor.
The prosecution's opening statement included the comically inevitable phrase, "Free speech is great, but..." He said this by way of introduction to the old saw about screaming "fire" in a crowded theater.
Whenever I hear this argument in support of limiting free speech, I think of its origin as an argument against the distribution of anti-draft fliers during World War I. Oliver Wendel Holmes had appealed to this argument to rule that distributing such fliers was a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.
In the end, the thrust of the prosecutor's opening statement was that this trial was not about free speech but about Ms. Lewis' "criminal activity."
The public defender, Janet Perez, took the opposite view in her opening statement, arguing that Lewis was arrested for peacefully exercising her 1st Amendment right to participate in a movement that takes a stand "against bailouts, foreclosures, poverty and high unemployment." She talked about the ponchos supplied by Mayor Villaraigosa, the porta-potties supplied by the city and the L.A. City Council resolution passed on October 5 which declared that "the City of Los Angeles hereby stands in SUPPORT for the continuation of the peaceful and vibrant exercise in First Amendment Rights carried out by 'Occupy Los Angeles' on City Hall Lawn."
Perez noted that Martha Lewis had often come to Solidarity Park in order to bring food to the Occupiers, just as she did at Skid Row.
Prosecutor's First Witness
The prosecutor's first witness was Detective Thomas W. Thorton, a 30-year L.A.P.D. veteran who had donned one of the infamous HazMat suits during the raid of the Occupy L.A. camp. He told of how the L.A.P.D had feared that the occupiers would "throw bottles of urine or fecal matter" at them, and that he had endured "verbal abuse" during the raid.
At this point the defense raised an objection which was not meant for the jurors' ears, so they were given a long beak so that the lawyers could discuss the objection.
The defense had raised a "discovery violation" challenge, because the City Attorney's office had not mentioned to the defense, as is required by law, that alleged threats against officers would be used as evidence in the case against Martha Lewis (California Penal Code 1054).
This lead to a broader discussion about discovery issues regarding this case, since there was an earlier decision by a Judge Klein that put global limits on all of the November 30 eviction cases, to the effect that prosecutors had to stick to evidence that was specific to each particular case. Judge Edwards had for some reason not seen this discovery order, so he recessed for the long weekend to study it.
This discovery violation challenge turned out to be the undoing of the City Attorney's case against Martha Lewis. Upon reconvening after the weekend, Judge Edwards admitted to being "disturbed by the discovery violations," especially after it turned out that the prosecuting attorney -- who was now flanked by five re-enforcements from the City Attorney's office -- had never even revealed the identity of their prime witness: Officer Alley, the arresting officer in Martha's case. Apparently, they had had trouble finding him.
Because of this clear violation of California Penal Code 1054 on the part of the City Attorney's office, the testimony of the arresting officer was excluded. As a result of this blow, the prosecuting team decided not to pursue the case and it was dropped.
After being cuffed and detained for days following the raid, Martha Lewis was now free to return to work at the Skid Row soup kitchen. When I asked her why she had been willing to face prison again by standing in solidarity with the Occupiers, she simply said that she was "very grateful for the Occupy Movement."
Several members of the jury, who had not been able to hear most of the three days of proceedings but were now free discuss the case, approached Public Defender Perez. They wanted to know what had happened: what about the city resolution in support of Occupy L.A.? What about the porta-potties? Did the Occupiers have a right to be there, or not? Was the raid a violation of their free speech, or not?
None of these questions were decided by the proceedings, which instead descended into procedural legal minutia. Perhaps one of the other ongoing November 30 eviction cases will reach the substantial core issues of the conflict between the City of Los Angeles and Occupy L.A.
Jason Rosencrantz is a Downtown resident who has become an active participant in Occupy Los Angeles. Read his previous posts here.