MANHATTAN (CN) – Two Christian ministers and a U.S. Navy veteran testified Wednesday with others against their arrests for protesting stop-and-frisk tactics in front of a Harlem police precinct.
Organized through Occupy Wall Street, the Oct. 21, 2011, protest in front of the 28th Precinct in Harlem resulted in the arrests of 34 activists, including Princeton University Professor Cornel West.
Prosecutors believe that, whatever their intentions, the activists broke the law.
But the defendants say there is no evidence that they blocked the precinct’s entrance or obstructed pedestrians.
Judge Robert Mandelbaum reserved decision on the Wednesday motion to dismiss all charges, opting to have the defendants testify.
The Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, who heads the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Harlem, took the stand first. A prosecutor objected as Kooperkamp started to tell the story of a young choir member stopped by police while traveling between two jobs.
Though prosecutors tried to steer the testimony away from political beliefs, Kooperkamp used every opportunity to condemn stop and frisk repeatedly as “racist and immoral.”
Earlier this year, the New York Civil Liberties Union released a report finding that about 87 percent of those stopped were black and Latino, and only roughly one-tenth of the stops resulted in an arrest or a summons.
At one point, Kooperkamp referred to it as “The New Jim Crow,” using a phrase coined by author Michelle Alexander to describe laws and enforcement policies that disproportionately affects blacks and Latinos.
Occupy Wall Street activists and other supporters who filled the pews snapped their fingers in approval of the remark.
Another minister, the Rev. Stephen H. Phelps of Riverside Church, testified that he got involved in the demonstration out of “grave concern for the destruction of rule of law in the city of New York through stop and frisk.” He said his opinions stemmed from his leadership of a “majority person of color congregation” and work at Attica and Sing-Sing prisons.
Other witnesses, like U.S. Navy veteran John Hector, shared anecdotes of their personal experiences with racial profiling.
After returning to civilian life after four years, Hector said that a plainclothes officer pulled over his car, and put him and a friend in handcuffs.
Although the subsequent search turned up empty, Hector said the officer refused to free them until they did the “chicken noodle” dance.
“This isn’t slavery days any more,” Hector said.
Nellie Hester Bailey, director of the Harlem Tenants Council, told the court that police had stopped two of her children, and that she participated in the October protest to bring attention to an issue that affected her family and community.
She denied prosecutor Lee Langston’s suggestion that she went to the demonstration looking to get arrested.
“I came to that march with an open mind to what may or may not occur,” she said.
To prove disorderly conduct, prosecutors must show “intent to cause public inconvenience, disruption or alarm.”
Under that standard, the prosecutors tried to use the activists’ willingness to be arrested for civil disobedience against them during cross-examination.
Assistant District Attorney Langston grilled Carl Dix, who issued one of the calls for the protest, about an article he wrote for the Huffington Post before the October protest titled “Why I Am Getting Arrested Today.”
Dix said he has written many similar articles before different demonstrations and considers himself a constant target for arrest because of his race and his activism.
“As you can see, I am a black man,” Dix said. “I have to calculate how high the risk is.”
Dix said he anticipated the arrest risk, but did not specifically seek out arrest.
The last witness, Jose LaSalle, said he did not know about stop and frisk before the protest, though his family lived with it constantly, because of his apolitical nature.
“It became normal to me, that being Puerto Rican, this is a part of my culture, being stopped and frisked,” he said.
A flyer for the demonstration allegedly made LaSalle aware of NYPD stop-and-frisk policy, and he tagged along to try to get a picture with Cornel West.
Prosecutor Langston submitted one of those photographs into evidence.
“This is, as you’d hoped, a picture of you and Cornel West,” LaSalle said.
Without missing a beat, LaSalle replied, “I have a better one,” on his Facebook page. Courtroom officers struggled to quiet down the laughter that followed.
Professor West is expected to testify on Thursday.