Occupy Atlanta Municipal Court
Over fourteen months after Occupy Atlanta protestors set up camp in Woodruff Park, the fifty-two people who were arrested the night of October 25 for refusing to leave the park, and over twenty others arrested in Occupy Atlanta protests over the next month, finally had their day in court. The defense team of ten volunteer lawyers, headed by attorney Mawuli Davis, spent the past year setting up a defense for the arrestees and meeting with Judge Crystal Gaines every week to file motions, and had days earlier served subpoenas on Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the Atlanta Chief of Police George Turner, and three other city officials. The city was still fighting the subpoenas when trial began on Monday, December 17.
The first half of the day dragged on with little happening outside of abstruse backroom legal maneuvers by the lawyers for each side. The fifty-plus defendants grew restless, and one of them, State Senator Vincent Fort, came up with the idea to march on the Atlanta City Hall during the break for lunch to demand that Mayor Reed testify in the case. Once the time came, Occupiers grabbed signs and a banner and marched down the street to City Hall where they filled the lobby in front of the security gate chanting, “Mayor Reed you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side!” Security was clearly caught off-guard and had no idea how to respond. They informed the Occupiers that signs couldn’t be brought into the building, so a few protestors remained outside while the rest quieted down and slowly filed through the metal detector. Once all the Occupiers had assembled in the main hall, they marched, with local news cameras in tow, to the second floor office of the Mayor.
Senator Fort approached the mayor’s secretary and asked for an audience with the mayor, to which the secretary repeatedly replied, “He’s not available.”
“He’s not here, or he’s not available?” the senator asked, increasingly irritated.
After a pause, she continued saying, “He’s not available.”
The frustration of the protestors—who were in court facing charges stemming from an executive order rescinded by Mayor Kasim Reed—grew until the group of more than thirty protestors began angrily chanting, “We’d like to see the mayor!” Security and office staff tried to no avail to calm and quiet the protestors, but their objections weren’t audible over the deafening shouts. After the tense standoff outside the mayor’s office, the Occupiers headed back towards the courthouse, promising to return the next day.
Back in court, the judge began to hear guilty pleas from defendants who, for some reason or other, didn’t wish to fight the charges. Most of these defendants either entered the Restorative Justice program, if they qualified, or plead nolo contendere. Those who plead nolo contendere received suspended sentences of one thousand dollar fines, while defendants who entered the Restorative Justice program were required to complete dozens of hours of community service, as well as submit to drug tests and appear before the Restorative Justice board. After nearly thirty defendants made pleas, court was adjourned for the day.
Tuesday morning the remaining twenty-eight defendants filed into the courtroom, and, as they were beginning to take their seats, a police officer entered the court and began calling the name of one of the defendants. When that defendant stood up, the officer turned him against the wall, frisked, and handcuffed him. There was an instant outcry from the other defendants and supporters as numerous people jumped up and began filming and taking pictures of the arrest. The defendant had an arrest warrant for failing to appear at a previous court date in Atlanta while he was jailed in Chicago for allegedly de-arresting another protestor at the NATO summit there in the early summer. Per order of the judge, he sat with his hands behind his back for the next few hours in the jury box before being taken to Dekalb County Jail around noon.
The remainder of Tuesday morning was spent hearing motions, and the judge decided she wouldn’t rule on the motions to subpoena the mayor and other city officials that day. After a recess for lunch, the city solicitor began the prosecution by calling former Atlanta Criminal Investigation Department Deputy Police Chief Calvin Moss to the stand. Attorneys for the prosecution asked him various questions about the night of the eviction, primarily focusing on him giving the announcement over the Woodruff Park public address system that the executive order allowing protestors to remain in the park was rescinded, and all those who refused to leave the park would be subject to arrest. Moss also testified about various fire hazards and public safety concerns that likely led to Mayor Reed’s decision to rescind the original executive order.
When the defense began their cross-examination, with each lawyer being able to cross-examine the witness, they focused on questions related to the announcement over the park PA system and the supposed safety hazards Chief Moss claimed he had personally seen in the park, which included a generator, propane heaters, a broken electrical box, extension cords, and open flame. As the cross-examination progressed, the defense realized that Moss was reading the text of the announcement made on the night of the eviction from a document that wasn’t turned over to the defense, and which was admittedly altered since that night. Judge Gaines allowed Moss to use the document, and a copy was provided to the defense.
At one point attorney Mawuli Davis began asking about surveillance of the park and informants, to which Moss responded by saying, “I wouldn’t call them informants; I would call them sources of information.”
When asked if the park was under 24 hour surveillance, Chief Moss replied by saying something like, “I wouldn’t call it surveillance, I’d call it constant police watch.”
The defendants burst into a muffled blend of laughter and furor at each further prevarication by the witness. After a few more questions regarding the gathering of intelligence during the park Occupation, attorney Davis asked who was in charge of collecting intelligence on Occupy Atlanta, to which Moss replied, “The Department of Homeland Security.” The courtroom erupted into gasps, and the judge reprimanded defendants for their outburst. As the testimony continued, Moss revealed that the Atlanta Police Department had a plan for the eviction of the park weeks prior to the October 25 arrests called the Occupy Atlanta Plan of Action. In pre-trial negotiations the city had claimed that these documents did not exist. The judge now ordered the solicitor to provide the document to the defense.
After former Deputy Chief Moss was released, the prosecution called their next witness, the arresting officer of two of the defendants. When questioned by the solicitor, the officer was able to successfully identify the two protestors he had arrested, but upon cross-examination the officer testified that without being shown photographs of his arrestees by the prosecution just a few days prior, photographs not provided to the defense at discovery hearings, he would have been unable to identify the defendants he had arrested. The charges against the two protestors arrested by the officer were subsequently dismissed and court was adjourned for the day.
The next day, after a number of charges were dismissed by the prosecution for “evidentiary reasons,” usually meaning the arresting officer didn’t work for the A.P.D. anymore, the remaining witnesses for the prosecution, who were all arresting officers, were called up one by one and subjected to the same around of questions regarding the identification of the defendants arrested by the officers. The defense questioned each officer about each citation being signed by an officer other than the arresting officer and also stating that the arresting officer gave the defendant verbal warning to leave the park, yet each officer testified that they had not and that the order was given over the PA system. A handful of officers were unable to positively identify defendants, even after having their memory “refreshed” by the photographs from the prosecution, and so the cases against those defendants were also dismissed.
Thursday began with the city turning over the A.P.D. Occupy Atlanta Plan of Action, and the denial by the judge of two out of the three motions to dismiss put forward by the defense, and also a denial of the subpoenas for the five city officials, including the mayor. According to the judge, she quashed the subpoenas because there is no right of discovery on municipal ordinance charges. A few more dismissals by the prosecution were granted, and then the defense began their arguments by calling the remaining ten defendants to testify.
Joe Beasley, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and Southern regional director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, was the first witness called to the stand by the defense. The seventy-five year old Beasley had a tendency to go on tangents, and the prosecution repeatedly objected, but Judge Gaines stated she wanted to hear where he was going and let him continue as he pleased. When asked about why he joined the occupation he stated that his “conscience dictated” that he join the movement. He recalled when decades earlier it had been illegal for African Americans to be in the park. He also spoke of when the ordinance restricting access to the park after 11pm was first enacted fifteen-years earlier and how he believed it was used to target the homeless who had previously spent the nights in the park.
When asked why he volunteered to be the first arrested in the park that night, he replied, “I was the oldest one there. I wanted to set an example,”
In the middle of Mr. Beasley’s testimony, the defense showed video provided by the city of the arrests. Numerous defendants reported feeling nostalgia at the year-old video of a circle of peaceful protestors singing renditions of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and an Occupy version of the Lion King theme song as dozens of police pulled the circle apart and, one-by-one, arrested each of the fifty-two protestors.
“I thought we were in a foreign country when I saw the Gestapo coming,” stated Mr. Beasley when questioned about the police presence on the night of the arrests.
Beasley said that he had been in talks with Mayor Reed just one day prior to the eviction in which the mayor stated that he would not take any action regarding Occupy Atlanta until he had met with members of the Concerned Black Clergy, some of whom had already visited the park occupation, to discuss what action to take regarding Occupy Atlanta. “We thought the mayor was a man of his word,” Beasley lamented after speaking of how Mayor Reed was supposed to have a meeting with the clergy the day after he ordered the arrests and eviction of Occupy Atlanta protestors.
Attorneys for the defense then called the remaining defendants to the stand and asked each a similar round of questions, such as why they joined the Occupy movement, if they had heard the order to leave the park over the PA system, and if there was ever any safety concerns in the park. During the cross-examination of defendants, the prosecution repeatedly asked about a man who came to the park on the day of the eviction with an AK-47 slung over his back. This was one of the reasons pointed to by the city for the eviction and arrest of Occupiers. The defense eventually entered a photo of the armed individual as evidence. The photo depicted the gunman holding a sign that read: "I disagree with their message but I think they have the right to be here.” The prosecution stopped asking questions about the armed individual once defendants had testified that the police around the park were notified about the armed individual and had refused to do anything about it.
That afternoon the defense called also defendant, radio show host, and former Atlanta city councilman Derrick Boazman to the stand. Boazman spoke of when he was a member of the Atlanta City Council and the ordinance restricting park hours was enacted, stating that he had serious reservations then.
When asked about the nature of the protests, he stated, "What I saw in the park was the best of nonviolent philosophy.”
Friday, December 21st was set to be the last day of the trial of the original park arrestees, but that morning the city turned over 800 pages of documents related to Occupy Atlanta that it had formerly denied existed. The 800 pages included, among other things, a near-hourly report of activities related to the Occupation of the park. The documents also stated, contrary to the testimony of former Deputy Police Chief Moss, that fire marshals had found no fire hazards or violations in the park.
The judge then allowed to defense to call their final witness, State Senator Vincent Fort. Senator Fort took the stand and answered similar questions as the defendants who had testified the day before.
Responding to questions by the prosecution of his intent to be arrested, Fort said, “When you have an unjust law, I believe you have to resist it no matter the consequences, and you should be prepared to take the consequences.”
After the testimony of the senator, instead of going forward with concluding arguments, the judge decided to give the defense time to review the hundreds of documents from the city and released the defendants until a later date at which the trial will resume and a ruling will be made regarding the final ten defendants.