NYC Chapter Continues Massive Defense of OWS Activists

Ben Meyers, NLG-NYC Mass Defense Coordinator

“It’s going to be a long day for you guys – they’ve already started arresting people downtown,” the senior court officer told me on the morning of November 17. Two days after the raid on Zuccotti Park, the 17th was a day of mass demonstrations confronting the injustices of global capital at its symbolic center in the Financial District. A five-minute walk from Wall Street at the Manhattan Criminal Court, it was also arraignment day for 30 of more than 700 people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge six weeks earlier.

I was standing outside the fifth floor courtroom in which a small team of NLG volunteers were working expediting the defendants’ court appearances. And the officer was right, it was a long day in the middle of a very long week.

On the morning of the park’s eviction, as hundreds of arrests took place across downtown and Guild attorneys argued for an emergency injunction against the City, there were also scheduled some 60 arraignments of bridge arrestees, a number that would be matched the following day. Through careful planning and the labors of a dedicated crew of people, we were able to keep track of who was being represented by which lawyers, whether they accepted the prosecution’s offer, and if not, when they would next be due in court. All this information was sent back to the chapter office and logged into a database created for this purpose.

This was one of many ways that the Mass Defense Coordination Committee (MDCC) supported the attorneys representing Occupy Wall Street (OWS) arrestees. By November 1st, there had already been over a thousand arrests reported to the chapter office, with more occurring nearly every day. All of these cases would be given similar court dates and, with Guild attorneys representing the majority of these, it was essential that we develop a way to make sense of the chaos in the hallways on large return dates.

To accomplish this, several different roles emerged. One person would check defendants in upon their arrival and make sure we had their correct contact information. A second person would assign clients to attorneys more or less in the order of their arrival, listing the names on bright yellow sheets that would be collected at the end of the day with dispositions and dates filled in. Another person would sit in the courtroom marking down dispositions on a form as cases came before the judge, which would later be checked against the info on the yellow sheets. Still another person would address whatever other questions or problems emerged on a given day, from defendants, lawyers, or court personnel.

Collectively, the presence of MDCC people in the court made it possible for dozens of Guild attorneys to efficiently appear in literally thousands of court appearances, even as the court itself strained against the huge volume of cases. The practices of the MDCC were developed over a series of meetings which happened regularly throughout the winter of 2011 and into the spring. At these meetings, the needs of activists (pre and post-arrest) and attorneys were brought to the table, and procedures to meet these needs were developed. The general kinds of support we have been able to provide include tracking people in custody between arrest and release, helping to expedite court appearances post-arraignment, providing various kinds of support to attorneys representing protesters, and hosting meetings for all concerned to share information and experiences concerning mass defense.

The most ambitious aspect of this was the mechanism for tracking people between their arrest and their release, which relied on volunteers to be “on call” whenever arrests were reported to the Chapter office, which could happen at any hour of the day or night. Depending on a number of different factors, those arrested would either be released from the precinct stationhouse after several hours with a later court date for arraignment, or would be transferred to Central Booking for processing and arraignment before release. The on-call person would be given the names and locations of the people arrested, and would make calls to determine the precincts at which the people were being held and if they were likely to be released from the precinct. They would then fax letters of representation, alert activist jail support and bail fund managers to the arrest, inform volunteer attorneys of potential arraignment needs, and make sure all the relevant parties had current information about the defendants as this information changed. If necessary, the on-call person also handled arraignments, many of which happened just minutes before the court closed at 1 a.m. And whether the protesters were released from the precinct or from the court, activist jail support would be ready for their release and provide the physical comfort and other kinds of support needed in those moments.

Once arrestees had been arraigned, the MDCC continued this support by expediting large return dates at court. Through much of the winter and spring, most cases related to the Occupy movement were assigned to a single courtroom, known as “Jury 7” four stories above a busy downtown street corner. Defendants appearing at Jury 7 were required to go through a second security checkpoint and deposit their cell phones and laptops with a property clerk before entering a long hallway dedicated to Occupy cases. Some return dates involved as many as 100 defendants. To accommodate that case load, MDCC volunteers compiled lists of whom to expect, how to reach them if they were at risk of a warrant for non-appearance, and which attorneys were representing them. Defendants would report in with the volunteer on duty, which helped attorneys immeasurably when it came time to gather up all their defendants for appearances and attorney-client conferences.

The hallway outside of Jury 7, incidentally, became a de facto OWS meeting space, playing host to many informal conversations and small assemblies while defendants waited to make their appearances inside the too-small courtroom. Although Jury 7 stopped operating in this way at the end of June, the MDCC continues to provide the same support to defendants and attorneys on large return dates at Manhattan Criminal Court, and will do so as cases move into the trial phase over the winter months.

The MDCC also organized numerous meetings of arrestees and of defense attorneys. At the arrestee meetings, attended by several hundred people at Judson Church and at several union halls, Guild attorneys would describe the typical sequence of a case, answer dozens of questions, and provide a space where defendants from the same mass arrests could share their perspectives about their experiences. For many, the protest arrest was their first, and these meetings served an important community-education function. Not only were attorneys able to answer general questions about such matters as the consequences of taking an ACD, immigration issues related to an arrest, and whether to post accounts of their activities on Facebook, but more-seasoned activists could use this as an opportunity to connect the issues around Occupy with other social justice issues, such as over-policing in communities of color. These meetings also helped attorneys who lacked mass defense experience get a better understanding of their clients’ concerns.

As of this writing, there are around a hundred trials scheduled for the winter months, many of which are consolidations of multiple defendants. The MDCC will be assisting with the preparation for these trials, and will be in and around the courtrooms to help in whatever ways are necessary. At the same time, police continue to arrest protesters, who will continue to return to court for multiple appearances, and the cycle will continue.

Mass defense coordination will continue to provide a strong legal defense in support of a robust culture of resistance and political dissent in New York City.