MANHATTAN (CN) – Twenty activists, including Princeton University Professor Cornel West, were convicted Friday of disorderly conduct for their protest at a Harlem police precinct last October.
Though prosecutors argued that the defendants should face the consequences of civil disobedience, defense attorneys said the activists should never have been arrested because they never obstructed pedestrians at the precinct. Video of the demonstration showed officers passing by the throng to enter and exit the station.
But Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Robert Mandelbaum said the video showed an impermissible barrier and ordered each defendant to pay a $120 surcharge without facing jail.
One of the defendants, Sade Adona of Occupy Wall Street Radio, will face two days of community service after being threatened with contempt of court during a heated cross-examination.
The protest was part of an Occupy Wall Street demonstration against stop-and-frisk policing, which has been besieged with reports of racially discriminatory profiling.
In an address to the judge, Professor West said he stood next to his co-defendants with a “deep sense of joy.”
“You did the best that you could based on your conception of justice,” West said.
After sentencing concluded, a former prosecutor from the Boston area stood up, pronounced the activists innocent, and sat toward the front of the courtroom peacefully with his hands behind his head.
“Your Honor, I refuse to leave this court,” Bobby Constantino said. “I am choosing in peace and love not to leave this court.”
Constantino told Courthouse News that he sprayed a graffiti message at City Hall on the eve of trial. The tag includes two handprints above the message, “NYPD Get Your Hands Off Me.” Constantino publicized the graffiti on his website, and sent a letter to Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s office promising to hold a “lobby-in” at City Hall if legislators do not immediately act to reform stop and frisk.
The New York City Police Department and City Hall’s press department did not immediately return an email for comment.
Constantino’s arrest emphasized activists’ refusal to bow to police pressure in the fight for civil rights.
One of the defendants, the Rev. Stephen H. Phelps of Riverside Church, used his pre-sentencing statement to say, “This court’s sentence is not the last sentence, and this judge is not the last judge.”
Debra Sweet, of the group World Can’t Wait, invited court spectators to stand in their position. “The people that know, know, and I invite others to join us on this side of the room,” she said.
Jose LaSalle, who testified that he attended the rally to get his photo taken with Professor West, vowed to start taking activism more seriously. “Now, I consider myself an activist from this day,” LaSalle said.
During summations earlier in the day, prosecutor Lee Langston acknowledged the defendants’ good motives.
“In many ways, that’s very admirable,” he said. But “stop and frisk is not on trial,” he added.
Police arrested the protesters because their demonstration could have prevented crime and accident victims from entering the precinct, Langston said. He rejected the defense’s argument that the activists would have let anyone through the “symbolic” blockage of the precinct door.
“It is unrealistic and frankly offensive that a victim of a crime would have to ask permission to enter into a safe haven,” Langston said.
He also accused the activists of engaging in “selective” and “self-serving” testimony.
“Although they were all willing to get arrested to tell truth to power … they didn’t tell the truth on the witness stand,” he added.
The Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, who heads the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Harlem, said during sentencing that he resented that remark.
“That really stuck in my craw,” Kooperkamp said, insisting that they were being truthful.
Several witnesses said they never heard the order to disperse.
Though prosecutors brushed aside the argument as unlikely, defense attorney Paul Mill said that NYPD video supported the claim.
As he rolled tape in court, the video showed police officers shouting commands that got garbled through a public address sound system on their squad cars.
Comparing the distortion to intercoms on aging New York City subways, Mills simulated the sound through his hands, to cackles in the courtroom.
When not arguing the details of the case, Mills and the other three attorneys highlighted the case’s First Amendment impact.
“Why is the freedom of speech amendment, amendment No. 1,” Paul Mills asked in summations. “It’s the one that protects all the others.”
Mills cited New York appellate case law supporting his argument that their “symbolic blockage” deserved free-speech protection, but ended his arguments with a lyric by jazz musician Mose Allison: “If you go up to the city, you better learn to shout, if you don’t stand up and holler, you gonna get left out.”
Another defense attorney, Ari Brochin, said that prosecutors did not show an “intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm,” the elements of disorderly conduct.
“There’s a difference between sounding an alarm and causing an alarm,” Brochin said. “The defendants in this case were putting forward inconvenient truths.”
Martin Stolar, of the National Lawyer’s Guild, put it more bluntly. “They deserve not only acquittal, but they deserve commendation,” Stolar said.