MANHATTAN (CN) – Princeton University Professor Cornel West brought calm and reflection Thursday to the end of witness testimony in a contentious trial over a protest at a Harlem police precinct.
Occupy Wall Street endorsed an Oct. 21, 2011 protest in front of the 28th Precinct to oppose stop-and-frisk policing. The rally ended in disorderly conduct arrests of 34 protesters.
About a dozen made plea deals that would have their charges expunged if they were not arrested for 6 months.
Nearly 20 others took the witness stand this week to testify that the police orders they were accused of defying were unlawful.
Prosecutors said the protestors should accept the consequences of civil disobedience, but the protesters insist they did not break any laws.
Tensions ran high throughout the four-day trial.
In addition to security at the Manhattan Criminal Court entrance, officers set up an additional checkpoint outside the courtroom and forced those without press or other credentials to leave their electronics behind. Once inside, officers often shouted “Quiet down!” or “Stop that!” to subdue laughter, talking and gesturing from the pews.
The temperature cooled as West spoke, peppering his testimony with a scattering of literary, religious, musical and historical allusions. Officers maintaining order listened quietly, and prosecutors raised fewer objections than usual.
After detailing his history in academics, West described himself as a revolutionary Christian who also embraced diverse religious traditions, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to Malcolm X.
West said that, for him, opposing stop and frisk policing was a Biblical duty because black and Latino communities bear the brunt of its policies.
“If you love your neighbor, you hate injustice,” West said.
He said he conceived of the protest while meeting in Harlem with Carl Dix, who co-founded the Revolutionary Communist Party, U.S.A.
“Carl Dix is an atheistic brother,” West said to laughter in the courtroom. “I love him anyway.”
He said they decided to call for people to demonstrate outside the 28th Precinct, and considered “escalating civil disobedience.”
Assistant District Attorney Michele Bayer seized on that phrase to claim that West would have blocked people from entering the precinct to draw attention to their cause.
West said that was not the case.
“We would have moved quickly, accordingly and lovingly,” he said.
Though he was the best-known defendant on trial, West denied being anyone’s leader.
“You don’t call yourself a leader,” he said. “You call yourself a lover.”
He said his love included the police.
Describing his arresting officer, Capt. Kevin Williams, West said, “He had a lovely smile on his face.”
One of his co-defendants, John Jay College Professor Jim Vrettos, said that he understood from his professional work as a criminologist that many police officers resent the pressure they face to participate in stop-and-frisks.
Not all of the witnesses were so conciliatory.
Earlier Thursday, co-defendant Matthew Swaye, a schoolteacher in Harlem, compared Capt. Williams to the commander of a modern-day “slave patrol.”
But Swaye denied he was “furious” with the police, as prosecutor Lee Langston had suggested.
Swaye said that he felt less fury than “sadness” at seeing his students subjected to searches, while white men such as he were rarely targeted.
“Every day in Harlem, my pink skin is my passport,” he said.
He said the topic was taboo in his school.
“Stop and frisk is not on the standardized tests, so it doesn’t get discussed,” he said.
Throughout the defense’s case, prosecutors tried to pin down concrete facts, while the defendants often spoke in paradoxes.
For example, prosecutors told witnesses that their demonstration could have caused “public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm,” the elements of a disorderly conduct conviction.
Debra Sweet, director of the activist group World Can’t Wait, said that the opposite was true.
“We intended to answer and ameliorate the alarm in our community,” she said.
There was also confusion over the “people’s mic,” the human amplification system in which a crowd repeats what a speaker is saying. Occupy Wall Street came up with the system because police would not let them use electronic bullhorns.
Prosecutors said that the people who repeated words on the people’s mic endorsed the speaker’s message.
Sweet said the prosecutors missed the point.
“Even Ms. Mayer and Mr. Langston would have to repeat” the group’s messages, Sweet said, referring to the prosecutors. “And I would repeat theirs.”
On the day of the arrests, West said through people’s mic that the activists were willing to put their “bodies on the line” for their cause.
Prosecutors claims meant that they wanted to get arrested.
Multimedia artist Jamel Mims, who was arrested that day, said prosecutors were interpreting their words too literally.
“Martin Luther King said that he was ready to die,” Mims said. “He wasn’t looking for death.”
Mims said it seemed that prosecutors were putting the people’s mic itself on trial.
“You’re tying to indict the people’s mic out of people repeating it. It’s preposterous,” Mims said.
During cross-examination, prosecutor Mayer asked Mims why he did not move behind metal barriers to avoid arrest.
Mims replied, “I see a barrier, I think, ‘Go around it.’ I don’t think, ‘Go in it.'”
The first witness to testify Thursday, comedian and former politician Randy Credico, said that he went to the 28th Precinct to engage in civil disobedience, but was arrested before he could get around to it.
“I was thinking of blocking the back entrance where they bring in all the young black and Latino kids,” he said.
Instead, he said he was arrested several feet in front of the front entrance.
Judge Robert Mandelbaum said he would rule this morning (Friday) on a motion to dismiss all charges on free speech grounds. If he grants dismissal, the decision would signal that police precincts are fair game for public protest, if demonstrators do not block entrances.
Otherwise, the parties will gear up for what promises to be heated closing arguments.