My May Day in Denver: Trial, Verdict, Sleep-In Protest
On April 30th I had my jury trial for the criminal charges brought against me in October when I protested the criminalization of homelessness and the eviction of Occupy Denver by sitting in Lincoln Park and refusing to leave (“I Was Arrested at Occupy Denver”). I was represented by an attorney who volunteered to take my case through the National Lawyers Guild. Several of my friends and family members came to watch the proceedings (many for the entire day — thank you everybody!)
My attorney did an excellent job, and despite my antagonism towards the state and flagrant lack of remorse for my actions, put quite a bit of work into what he hoped was a viable defense. Despite ruling against my motion to dismiss at an earlier hearing, finding that the State’s actions in closing the park did not violate the First Amendment because they were content-neutral and narrowly tailored to the State’s interest (and so fell within valid time, place, and manner restrictions of speech), the Court did rule that my attorney would be able to speak about freedom of speech in front of the jury. She also ruled that if I were to testify he would be able to ask me about my property that was taken from me during my arrest and that the Colorado State Patrol subsequently lost. Two early victories.
The prosecution’s case was not especially strongly argued, despite fairly clearly having the law and the facts on their side in at least one of the charges ("Unlawful Conduct on Public Property" — it was undisputed that I ignored a police officer’s request to leave a public park). During jury selection voir dire he smartly emphasized the oath the jury took to determine only the facts of the case, and not to decide whether a law is just. He even implied that all laws must be obeyed in a sensible society. I wish I (or my attorney) had asked them to think about the absurd implications of that and to consider whether an oath which will cause more harm than good is an ethically binding oath. Oh well.
As far as evidence, the prosecutor’s strategy was to first demonize the Occupy Denver camp and then to condemn me by association. Neither step was very convincing I don’t think, even to an objective observer. Unfortunately my attorney was so focused on his negative defense based on my state of mind (he wanted to argue that I didn’t "knowingly" break the law, because I believed the law to be invalid… or something) so he didn’t focus on the hypocrisy of the State’s actions nearly as much as I’d have liked: that the mess in the park was the result of the state police disassembling tents, that instead of offering toilets or trash service the state offered 100 riot police, that even if there was a good reason to evict the camp (there wasn’t) there was certainly no good reason to arrest me (I was, by all accounts, sitting peacefully at the edge of the park). For my part I wasn’t sure whether to defend Occupy Denver, to defend myself, or to explain why it is unjust to criminalize living in public. When I finally took the stand to testify I was too nervous to say much of anything.
The trial went late, so after both sides finished presenting their case the Court decided the jury would return in the morning to deliberate a verdict. Before adjourning my attorney won one more important dispute: the wording of the jury instructions for the “Obstructing a Law Officer” charge. The DA’s recommendation included only the verb “to hinder” (not coincidentally, my arresting officer testified that while I did not resist I did “hinder” him by not standing up to be arrested — the first time he ever used that language in describing the events). My attorney successfully had the phrase “by force or by using an obstacle” added to the instructions. The next day being May Day I had planned to stay in Denver that night anyway, so after the trial I went and bought a sleeping bag (to replace the one that was lost when I was arrested). I found a good stealth site under some bushes in a city park — my first time sleeping out alone in resisting curfew!
After my rather narrow defense, the verdicts the next morning were not surprising to me:
Unlawful Conduct on Public Property: Guilty
Obstructing a Law Officer: Not Guilty
Criminal Trespass: Guilty
My sentencing is not scheduled until June 29th, so that the state may have time to conduct a pre-sentencing investigation report to inform the Court about what sort of threat I pose to society and so what level of jail or probation I should receive. As part of that investigation I was briefly interviewed by a probation officer. Before the interview they had me fill out a form which was almost exclusively about domestic violence and substance abuse. So I filled it in with a lot of sad forever alone jokes and mentioned that while I’ve never had an alcoholic beverage before, I may have had sips. In lieu of filling in the “describe in your own words the events of your crime” section I attached a copy of my “I Was Arrested at Occupy Denver” pamphlet.
The probation officer was friendly and respectful of my convictions and he said his primary recommendation would be fines/costs with no probation, though he was insistent on emphasizing the penalties for breaking probation if that’s what the court ended up choosing. The insinuated logic was “your reasons may be righteous, but the state is scary and living a principled life is not worth it.” The thoughts he left me with as I got into the elevator were that if I end up spending 30 days in county jail “nobody would care” about my reasons and that despite my valid protests if I ended up in jail then I “wouldn’t be doing any good.” Throughout the interview I was the subject of all actions: I put myself in a position to be arrested; I didn’t take the plea deal; I was sent to a probation office that doesn’t have the resources to spend on nonviolent offenders. The State’s role in unjustly arresting me, in overcharging me, in compelling me to trial, in convicting me, and in subjecting me to a pre-sentencing investigation and possibly probation were conspicuously absent from his thinking.
After hearing the verdict and visiting the probation office, I went down to Civic Center Park to partake in the May Day events Occupy Denver had organized. On my way I stopped to pick up my backpack from the county detention center where I left it in a locker while I was in the courthouse. While I was in the lobby a sheriff came out with a handful of cables and locks and announced that the lobby was going on lock-down so everybody who wanted to leave should do so now! I got out and found out the reason for the lockdown was a small group of protesters gathering to show solidarity for a few protesters who were arrested (for jaywalking) during the May Day parade (which I missed). One of the arrested, Sole, was slated to perform in the park later, but instead sat in a holding cell while they waited for his fingerprints to be processed. (You can read his account on his message board.)
By the time I made it to the park there were not many people there, but it was a refreshingly radical and friendly environment. Signs and chalk art everywhere said things like “Another World is Possible Ⓐ ,” “No Human Is Illegal” (although that one included a URL to a Maoist website), “Homelessness Is Not a Crime,” and several General Strike, Industrial Worker’s of the World (IWW), and class war slogans. There was a booth giving away seeds and tomato plants, a barter market (which I think was put on by the Denver Handmade Homemade Market folks), an IWW info booth, and food provided by some Food Not Bombs activists. (You can see some photos and reporting on this Huffington Post article.)
Haymarket: The Origins of May Day as Labour Day
Until recently I never took an interest in organized labour struggles. I have had no personal experience with unions, but what little I saw of them was a strange celebration of unpleasant work, wages, materialism, and hierarchical organization. I had, however, never been taught about (or never paid attention to) radical labour movements, like anarchism, which seek not only better working conditions, but the elimination of the wage system and of the separate employer/employee classes. One hundred twenty-six years ago Chicago, IL, was the hub of such radical movements in America. On the fateful day of May 4, 1886, the struggle for the eight-hour workday had spilled into the streets, and as the police were dispersing a crowd from Haymarket Square somebody — nobody ever found out who — tossed a dynamite bomb into the police line, killing one officer immediately and fatally wounding several others.
Eight anarchists were arrested for their roles in organizing the protests, seven of them were sentenced to death, one killed himself before the state could do it, four were executed, and the remaining two had their sentences commuted by the governor. One of the anarchists, August Spies, moments before being hanged shouted out his famous last words, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!”
The Haymarket affair (see also this very good short history which was first published in the April 1986 issue of Revolutionary Worker: The Origins of May First) became an excuse for the propertied class to discredit and crackdown on socialists everywhere. The momentum for the eight-hour workday was lost, anarchist groups were constantly accosted by police (and to this day the dark bearded man sneaking about with a round, fused dynamite bomb is the caricature of an anarchist), revolutionary unions like the IWW lost membership to reformist unions like the now-dominant AFL, etc. But Haymarket also became a rallying event for labour movements all over the world, with the First of May becoming an international workers' day in commemoration of the Haymarket martyrs.
Today more than eighty states officially recognize May Day as a labour holiday. The United States does not. In fact this year Obama, like in past years, proclaimed May 1 to be Loyalty Day in a not-so-subtle snub at the Chicago anarchists who gave their lives in the struggle for equality. In past years America has also officially celebrated those deaths as Law Day and “Americanization Day”.
This year, thanks to the organization of the various Occupy movements, May Day was once again celebrated by thousands as a day to commemorate labour struggles (see also the Great American Boycott of 2006). Including me, for the first time.
After the events in the park, about 50-60 of us walked over to the 16th Street Mall to sleep for the night in protest of Denver’s proposed urban camping ban (which will likely be put into effect later this month). I met several friendly young people, several of whom were currently homeless, recently homeless, or were currently hitchhiking around between jobs. They included me in their conversations, listened to what I had to say, and were generally very encouraging people to meet. The Thunderdome stopped by to make s’mores, coffee, and chai for everybody. Other people brought pots of soup and loafs of bread. (Somebody posted a Flickr photo album of the protest. I’m visible in some of the photos.)
At first there was a large police presence, but once it was clear we were just there to sleep they left us alone. All the local TV news stations were there both at night and in the morning to run short live reports on the protest. At one point during the night a very frustrated man who decided he wanted to get arrested that night tossed a large rock through the glass door of one of the shops we were sleeping in front of. Even to that incident the police reaction was subdued, responding with only one vehicle and at least ten minutes after it happened (there was a group of private security guards keeping an eye on us all night who reported the window smashing immediately). The guy who threw the rock was getting impatient waiting for the police (at one point shouting “Where are the police?!” while standing on the curb with his hands behind his back). The window was boarded up before the news crews came back in the morning, and nobody reported on the incident — I don’t think any news station was ever aware it occurred. (I can be seen walking in front of the camera during a clip aired by 9News.)
There is a similar sleep-in protest planned for next Saturday. I intend to be in attendance.