Occupy the Court: Bishop, protesters defend entering lot

BY JEFFERSON SIEGEL  |  On Monday the first mass trial of a group of Occupy Wall Street defendants who tried to take over a privately owned space in Duarte Square last year began in Manhattan Supreme Court. If the line of people waiting to get in was any indication, the nine-month-old O.W.S. movement can still draw a standing-room-only crowd.

The defendants were some of the dozens arrested last Dec. 17, a month after O.W.S.’s eviction from Zuccotti Park. Half of the 20 defendants in this particular group had already had their cases adjourned or charges dropped entirely.

Eight stood ready to go to trial on Monday morning. Charges for most of those who entered the lot included trespassing and criminal mischief.

On Dec. 17 — a.k.a. “D17” — the protesters tried to occupy a property owned by Trinity Real Estate at Duarte Square, at Canal and Varick Sts. Hundreds  spent the day holding a street festival around the small, fenced-in lot. Shortly after 3 p.m., crowds surged toward the lot’s northern fence. Some scaled the obstruction using ladders while others pushed their way under the chain-link barrier.

“It was really hectic,” Tracie Williams, an independent documentary photographer and one of the first journalists through the fence, recalled of the Duarte incursion. “It’s that moment you’re expecting something but you’re not really sure what’s going to happen.” She was arrested when police entered the lot.

Williams had her charges dropped after discussions between her lawyer and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office certified her journalistic bona fides. In the period leading up to “D17” she had been documenting the story of several O.W.S. hunger strikers.

At the start of Monday’s trial, opening statements were brief and to the point.

“The defendants made a deliberate choice to violate the private property rights” of Trinity Church by entering Duarte, said prosecutor Lee Langston, adding that O.W.S. had been pressuring Trinity for use of the Hudson Square lot.

One of four defense attorneys, Martin Stolar retorted that a full month prior to “D17,” extensive negotiations were held between Occupy, Trinity and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which had leased the Duarte Square lot from Trinity for use for a program called LentSpace.

A key issue was whether Trinity had asked the New York Police Department to clear the area prior to the mass arrests. The initial prosecution witnesses, three police officers, testified that they discussed the issue with Amy Jedlicka, general counsel for Trinity Church — which Trinity Real Estate is a part of — but admitted they talked with her after the occupiers had been arrested.

Listening intently to the arguments was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges, a frequent visitor to Zuccotti Park last fall during the O.W.S. encampment there.

Following the police eviction of Occupy from Zuccotti Park last November, the “99 percent” movement has been searching, unsuccessfully, for an outdoor space to serve as a new organizing hub and provide visibility to garner media attention.

After a morning of testimony from the arresting officers, Jedlicka took the stand.

Questions posed to her centered on several issues, including the presence of signage on the fencing surrounding the LentSpace lot that said it was open to the public; and whether and when Jedlicka had asked police to clear the lot and the rightful ownership of the property.

The Duarte Square site, along with other tracts of property in Lower Manhattan, was originally transferred to Trinity Church in 1705 under a “land grant” from Queen Anne of England. Jedlicka said Trinity still has the original parchment document proving ownership.

After she repeated several times that the Duarte Square property was owned by Trinity, attorney Stolar raised the issue of a succeeding claim to title. Stolar asked Jedlicka if, for a period of several years, Duarte was actually owned by the Grand Varick Corporation. Jedlicka replied that Grand Varick was a wholly owned subsidiary of Trinity.

Stolar pressed on, noting an agreement between Trinity and L.M.C.C., dated Jan. 9, 2009, that stated the park would be open to the public from 7 a.m. to dusk, year-round. Photos of the signs stating these rules were entered into evidence.

When Jedlicka said the agreement limited use to “performance events,” Stolar pressed her to define that term.

Under further questioning, Jedlicka said that, prior to Dec. 17, 2011, she had last been in Duarte Square that October, when she saw signs listing, “Public Space Rules” posted outside the fence. She said that “No Trespassing” signs were posted in early November.

On the trial’s second day, another police officer took the stand, followed by Diego Segalini, the vice president of L.M.C.C.

During Tuesday’s lunch break, defense attorney Paul Mills expressed confidence in the occupiers’ case, telling The Villager, “It’s pretty clear, at this point, that Trinity and the city set this up as a trap. They wanted to make an example. O.W.S. has participated in similar actions where they entered onto vacant property to put it to use.”

At the end of the second day of testimony, retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard — who was the first to climb a ladder and enter LentSpace on Dec. 17 — stood outside the court building with his fellow defendants.

“I just felt like Occupy Wall Street needed a new home and we should place our bodies in a location of justice,” Packard said of his motivation for entering the fenced-off square.

Defense lawyer Gideon Oliver said Trinity has had chances to drop the case against his client Packard, but refused to do so.

“Packard had a good-faith belief, based on Trinity’s past practices and his relationship with Rector James Cooper, that Trinity would exercise forbearance. Trinity had multiple opportunities to back off these prosecutions,” Oliver said.

Defense lawyer Stolar offered a more faith-based outlook.

“The Bible and prayer say, ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’ That’s what Trinity should be doing.”

All but one of the defendants face a maximum of 90 days in jail if convicted on the charge of trespassing in the fourth degree. Judge Matthew Sciarrino is expected to rule at the conclusion of the trial.