- In Pictures
- Taste of Tribeca
- Under Cover
BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Throughout Occupy Wall Street’s more than five weeks of demonstration, legal witnesses have been monitoring the activity of both the NYPD and O.W.S. to keep tabs on who might be violating the law.
The men and women, sporting bright green caps, are known as legal observers. They are volunteers for the National Lawyers Guild charged with observing O.W.S. activity in hopes of deterring police violence.
“Whatever happens, there’s a neutral witness,” explained N.L.G. volunteer Moira Meltzer-Cohen, a law student at the City University of New York School of Law.
“We document it, but we don’t get involved.”
While it’s important to preserve their neutrality, Meltzer-Cohen and the other observers are also supposed to interact with arrestees so that N.L.G. can offer free legal services to the protestors once they’re released from jail.
“It’s kind of a paradox — we have to not get arrested, but we sort of have to head toward the chaos when it happens, because we have to get arrestees’ names,” said another legal observer who requested anonymity.
On Friday, Oct. 21, Meltzer-Cohen called a “mic check” to lead the Guild’s daily “Know Your Rights” training sessions, meant to brief protestors on what to do when confronted by police and on their rights should a confrontation happen.
While the police have the legal authority to search people once they are arrested, Meltzer-Cohen noted, they aren’t allowed to search them otherwise.
“If the police try to search you before you have been arrested, the magic words are, ‘I do not consent to this search.’ You must say it loudly, and you must say it clearly, so that the people around you can testify that you did not consent,” Meltzer-Cohen told the crowd.
She discouraged the protestors from getting arrested if they can help it. “Jail is excruciatingly boring… you are always more useful and happier out of jail than in it,” Meltzer-Cohen shouted.
“[But] if you get arrested,” Meltzer-Cohen continued, “try to find somebody in a green hat and shout your name to them and your phone number.”
The male legal observer, a practicing attorney, claimed not to have witnessed any arrest-worthy conduct by protestors during his time as a volunteer, including at the Oct. 1 Brooklyn Bridge rally where more than 700 people were arrested.
The amount of police presence, the observer said, is “overwhelming” and “unnecessary.”
“I think there is definitely an ‘us-versus-them’ thing going on in the city, and it tends to originate [from] the top down,” noted Lisa, a civil litigation attorney who refused to give her last name. Lisa stopped by the N.L.G.’s booth last Friday to inquire about becoming a volunteer.
Lisa was particularly horrified by the presence of riot police at Washington Square Park the night of Saturday, Oct. 15, following the large demonstration in Times Square that evening. “It’s not Tiananmen Square,” she said.
Seeing democracy in action, Lisa added, is “heartwarming.”
“I want to volunteer because this is important, and a lot of people here will eventually need some help,” said Lisa. “Hopefully, if this movement can stay non-violent and peaceful, we will have a mild winter and the numbers will keep growing.”
N.L.G. defends protestors
In the coming days and weeks, attorneys for the N.L.G. will also be defending the protestors that have been arrested and are slated to appear in court.
There have been approximately 966 O.W.S.-related arrests in total — most of which pertain to disorderly conduct, and more than 700 of which resulted from blocking vehicular traffic during an Oct. 1 march on the Brooklyn Bridge, according to Police Department Detective Cheryl Crispin.
The N.L.G. received bad news when, on Monday, Oct. 24, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance refused to unilaterally dismiss 750 of the cases pertaining to the mass arrests during the Sept. 24 Union Square march and the Oct. 1 Brooklyn Bridge march. Instead, Vance promised to offer 340 of the protestors “adjournments in contemplation of dismissal” (A.C.D.s) — an option to adjourn the case if the protestor isn’t arrested again within six months of the initial arrest. The remaining arrestees, meanwhile, were given summonses without this guarantee.
Either way, the decision is not what the N.L.G. was seeking for its dozens of clients that were charged for disorderly conduct.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Martin Stolar, a N.L.G. member who is representing 12-to-15 clients. With respect to the Brooklyn Bridge protestors, Stolar said, “Most of them [felt] lead out onto the bridge by the police. They didn’t commit a crime in their own minds, since thought what they were doing is perfectly kosher.”
Stolar predicted that, while some arrestees would reject the A.C.D. option out of principle of being wrongfully prosecuted, others out of fear it could inhibit their future protest activity.
“There are a number of people who say, ‘I’m not taking anything short of a dismissal or a trial because I didn’t do anything,’” said Stolar. “There are also some people who will view the A.C.D. six-month adjournment period as a form of probation.”
The N.L.G.’s mass defense committee is scheduling meetings for its clients on Sunday, Oct. 30 and Friday, Nov. 4 at Judson Memorial Church in the West Village.
The N.L.G. also has a daily information booth set up at Zuccotti Park, where N.L.G. volunteers answer legal questions each day from 5 to 7 p.m. Civil rights attorney Jonathan Moore, an N.L.G. member who was manning the booth last Friday, will be representing O.W.S. arrestees in a civil court case on Monday, Nov. 21 — one of several other such protestor cases the N.L.G. plans to litigate pro bono in the coming weeks.
Moore wouldn’t disclose specifics of the case, though he said O.W.S. arrestees have been charged thus far with various forms of disorderly conduct ranging from obstructing traffic to refusing to comply with police orders to disperse.
N.L.G. takes on Brookfield
The N.L.G. also played a role when O.W.S. was instructed to clear Zuccotti Park on Friday, Oct. 14 so Brookfield Office Properties, the park’s owner, could clean it.
In an Oct. 11 letter to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Brookfield’s Chief Executive Officer Richard Clark called on the NYPD for assistance in its plan to clean, inspect and perform any necessary repairs to the property.
“We are extremely concerned about dangers posed by damage that may have been incurred within the park, and by materials and equipment brought into the park by the protestors,” said Clark in the letter. “Brookfield protocol and practice is to clean the park on a daily basis, power-wash it each weeknight, and perform the necessary inspection, maintenance and repairs on a regular, as-needed basis. Since the occupation began, we have not been able to perform basic cleaning and maintenance activity, let alone perform more invasive repairs.”
(Brookfield never followed up on its wish to temporarily oust the protestors.)
A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning maintained that Brookfield has the right to temporarily evacuate the park during a scheduled maintenance period without approval from the city; and that the park owner could even penalize trespassers using police enforcement during the allotted time frame.
The spokesperson also said that Brookfield could alter the rules of the park without city authorization in order to make the space amenable to “passive enjoyment consistent with [the owner’s] purpose.”
The N.L.G., however, begs to differ on both counts. Though the park is privately owned, any attempt Brookfield would make to clear out the park for cleaning or maintenance purposes would breach first amendment rights, according to the N.L.G. in an Oct. 13 letter to Clark.
Police action used to enforce an evacuation without a court order would also be unlawful, the N.L.G. contended.
“I don’t think [Brookfield is] in a strong legal position,” said N.L.G. member Margaret Ratner Kunstler, a civil rights lawyer and one of the authors of the letter. “If they go to court, we’ll be there. And if they decide to illegally wipe people out, we’ll be there.”
Ratner Kunstler also questioned D.C.P.’s assertions about Brookfield’s rights to rewrite the rules of the park, saying, “We’ll litigate it [if necessary].”
The N.L.G.’s letter also addressed Brookfield’s concerns about the park’s cleanliness, pledging that O.W.S.’s sanitation working group (the Guild’s client) is bagging and hauling away trash daily; sweeping the park regularly; and polishing its hard surfaces. The N.L.G. purportedly also looked into Brookfield’s worry of electrical hazards occurring below the park’s surface due to the occupation — which the company said could require the park to be torn apart for rewiring — and found the electrical units to be sound.
“Based on a visual inspection recently conducted by our clients, there has been no damage to the lenses covering the underground lighting, and thus there is no risk of water infiltration,” said the N.L.G. lawyers. “Additionally, it is our understanding that there has been no electricity running in said fixtures for weeks now” — eliminating the risk of an electrical mishap.