Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Judge dismisses RNC protest case

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Portlander Paul McCarrier, an activist with the Black Bird Collective and the North East Anarchist Network, Bostonians Molly Adelstein and Kate Bonner-Jackson, Drew Wilson of Worcester, and three others were among roughly 20 people arrested September 1, 2008, at the intersection of 6th and Wall Streets in St. Paul, Minnesota during the Republican National Convention. Police alleged that they had participated in a roadblock four blocks away, and charged them with unlawful assembly, impeding traffic, disorderly conduct, and obstruction of a legal process.

The defendants — who became known as the "Wall 7" — were in St. Paul during the RNC because, as Wilson puts it, "we think that our government should be held accountable for the crimes it has committed." They weren't released from jail until the last day of the convention.

Along with many of 800 others arrested (including journalists, a convention delegate, and a convention security guard), faced misdemeanor charges, 40 percent of which have since been dropped. More than 20 people — including the "RNC 8" activists who coordinated protests and protest support — face felony charges.

The Wall 7 were offered plea deals — the chance, says Bonner-Jackson, to "plead guilty to something you didn't do" — but, unlike many others, didn't take them. With legal advice and support from the National Lawyers Guild, Minnesota activists Community RNC Arrestee Support Structure (CRASS) the Seven, relative strangers, demanded a collective jury trial, which was scheduled for January 20, inauguration day.

But the case was doomed because the Wall 7 and other RNC protestors had demonstrated wearing masks, helmets, and padding for both protection and anonymity — the familiar "black bloc" protest tactic. As a result, witnesses couldn't identify who had done what in the streets of St. Paul, and the judge dismissed all the charges.

"Police had no basis for the vast majority of arrests made during the RNC," said defense attorney Jordan Kushner said in a press release after the trial ended. "The judge in this case decided there wasn't even enough evidence to require the defendants to put on any evidence and allow the case to go to a jury."

Bonner-Jackson (who works with Boston's Food Not Bombs group) is "kind of disappointed" their day in court didn't include the chance to explain what they were doing, but she's "not arguing" with the ruling.

"We did nothing wrong. We went there for good reasons. We did something right," says Worcester community activist Wilson.

The Wall 7's victory is significant in that it opens the courtroom doors for other protestors who've declined plea bargains. CRASS, meanwhile, is now organizing arrestees to sue authorities for wrongful arrest and use of excessive force.

What the Wall 7 learned in Minnesota

The Wall 7 learned a few things for their next protests, too:

During protests, they should pass out flyers and talk to passers-by about what the protest is about, and why the demonstrators are dressed in protective clothing.

Creating positive community-support structures works: activists set up health clinics, hot-meal services, Internet access, legal observers, street medics, bicycle sharing, and shared housing during the RNC, and community support for those on trial afterwards.

Sticking together really helps, while being arrested, when in jail, upon release, and during the trial.

Hugging irritates jail guards, who say it's not allowed, and call it "stupid."

The public at large is willing to accept a startlingly high level of police brutality toward citizens.

Being arrested, even when it includes being pepper-sprayed, isn't as bad as they thought it was.