Reports from Occupy: 11/30

November 30, 2011

The Occupy movement has spread from a small protest encampment in the financial district of Manhattan to a mass movement across the U.S.--and now the world--with supporters in over 1,000 cities, towns, campuses and more. Here, is publishing reports we receive from activists around the country, describing the actions they're organizing and the discussions they're a part of. If you want to contribute a report, use this "Contact Us" page.

Sacramento, Calif.

By Zavi Katzvik

NEARLY EVERY day, Sacramento police have cleared the Occupy encampment here while arresting two to four activists each night. The goal: to ensnare activists in a legal war of attrition.

The city has a strict "anti-camping law" on its books, which serves as an excuse to mistreat the homeless on a regular basis and, naturally, was trotted out to harass activists attempting to set up an encampment at Cesar Chavez Park, across the street from City Hall and a block away from the Capitol.

As a result, the struggle to establish the right to protest has been an ongoing battle with a total so far of 85 recorded arrests and dozens of protesters waiting to stand trial on December 13.

Though Sacramento has made a daily habit of trying to clear the camp, the police reserve more intense repression for large events held by Occupy activists.

On October 6, the first night of the occupation, police rounded up 21 people who opted to stay in the park after its closing hours. The police initially charged them under California penal code, section 409--unlawful assembly--and even though they were misdemeanor charges, they carried penalties of six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Protesters march at Occupy Sacramento
Protesters march at Occupy Sacramento

Unlike occupations in Oakland and New York, Sacramento police have yet to physically brutalize any of the protesters with batons or chemicals, but many protesters have complained of overtightened cuffs, bruises and scratches.

Arrestees typically spend a full day in jail and report difficult conditions behind bars. "They put 15 women in a space that was perhaps designed for eight," said protester Karen Bernal. Collective statements by other arrestees establish that women are regularly released at a later time than men, perhaps as a means to dissuade other women looking to join the movement.

On October 15, police took 19 protesters into custody, including prominent antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. In the process, protesters claim, police blocked off 10th Street to use as a booking office, and roughly 60 officers and 45 vehicles were used to make the arrests. Those arrested that night were charged with the same misdemeanors as those arrested the first night.

Three days later, some 250 protesters, outraged at Sacramento's drive to stifle the voices of the 99 percent, flooded the City Council chambers to demand that Mayor Kevin Johnson drop the charges and lift the park's curfew and anti-camping law. The City Council and Johnson flatly refused, stating they didn't intend to make any changes but would look into the matter in the future.

"The Council suggested they'd 'study' the issue," explained an Occupy Sacramento newsletter. "Hundreds of people attending the council meeting then voiced loud opposition and vowed to commit acts of peace civil disobedience."

Then on October 20, Mayor Johnson and his colleagues visited the park to "bear witness" to the scene. The protesters again appealed to the mayor to allow the occupation to continue without threat of arrest. Again, Johnson denied the request and told protesters to disperse at the park's closing time. Just hours after his warning, four more protesters were taken into police custody.

But to the great dismay of city officials, Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully has refused to prosecute protesters charged with unlawful assembly. In a statement, Scully explained that the code only applies to assemblies with a violent intent, and because the Occupy Sacramento protesters weren't violent, the charges were inappropriate.

However, this hasn't meant a break for the protesters. As a result of Scully's demurral, the city of Sacramento took control of the case. "Volunteer lawyers said they expect the city of Sacramento to file new charges Wednesday, and prosecute them," Occupy Sacramento newsletters claim. "[This is] an unusual move by the City Attorney."

The Occupy Sacramento movement was quick to respond to the city's antagonism.

Protester and civil liberties lawyer Mark Merin sent a warning letter to City Manager John Shirey, City Attorney Eileen Teichert, and members of the City Council stating that ACLU volunteer lawyers who have sided with Occupy Sacramento plan on filing a lawsuit against the city of Sacramento if the protesters are prosecuted.

"Good folks in Cincinnati have filed a lawsuit alleging that actions which that city has taken, similar to what Sacramento has done, [are] unconstitutional," Merin's letter reads. "We are prepared to file a similar action here."

The first group of protesters went to their scheduled court hearings on October 26. The City Attorney's office offered a plea deal to those who faced the charges: defendants would be given punishments of having to attend a class and have the infraction dismissed upon completion of the class if they pleaded guilty. One by one, all of the defendants declined and court arraignments were pushed to November 3. About 30 protesters, including Cindy Sheehan and other arrestees, were scheduled to reappear in court on October 15, in one of the biggest court cases in terms of number of defendants in Sacramento history.

On November 1, volunteer lawyers filed a civil liberties lawsuit against the city for infraction of First Amendment rights and included a request for a temporary restraining order intended to stop police arrests of protesters. "Similar federal lawsuits in other U.S. cities have resulted in an end to arrests," Cres Vellucci, a representative of Sacramento's ACLU board, claimed.

The case that the lawyers cited the most was that of Nashville, Tenn. In Nashville, a federal judge ruled that upholding park hours at the expense of protesters' right to assemble was unconstitutional. The judge granted the protesters of Occupy Nashville a temporary restraining order that halted arrests.

However, Sacramento federal judge Morrison England denied Occupy Sacramento the temporary restraining order in favor of upholding the city's curfew at Caesar Chavez Park and suggested that the arrests would continue. The federal judge then asked the lawyers why the Occupy Sacramento movement failed to apply for a special permit before beginning the protest. Cres Vellucci responded, "We never applied for a permit because a higher law--the U.S. Constitution--guarantees the right to peacefully assemble, which is a right that has been corrupted to the detriment of the people, like so many laws enacted by legislative bodies controlled by corporations and the 1 percent."

The Occupy Sacramento legal team and other participants made attempts afterward to acquire a special permit for the movement, only to meet more obstacles along the way. The request was later denied on the grounds that the application was not "properly filled out." When the protesters began to revise the document, they received further notifications stating that another request would be denied because no "ending date" could be projected for the movement.

When the November 3 hearings began, the protesters standing trial continued to make their resistance heard. All charges filed against them were being pushed through by the Sacramento City Attorney as planned, and all of the defendants, represented by about 25 volunteer lawyers, responded by demanding trial by jury and entering "not guilty" pleas to court, formally denying any offers made by the City Attorney's office.

"We're pleading not guilty, not taking any offers, because we believe in the principle of non-violent peaceful assembly and the First Amendment to the Constitution," Cindy Sheehan said, "and we believe those are being violated by the city of Sacramento and the police."

The trials for the protesters who faced arraignments November 3 were scheduled for December 13.

Protesters used a variety of arguments in court and outside of court in attempts to get the charges dropped. One of these arguments was that the city of Sacramento wastes thousands of taxpayer dollars arresting otherwise peaceful protesters. Protesters collectively demanded trial by jury to add mounds of processing work to the Sacramento court system to prove this.

The second wave of arraignments scheduled for November 16 went down a rather different route. Volunteer lawyers announced that the City of Sacramento had dropped charges against 31 of the protesters, and planned on dropping more on December 13. The large number of defendants being processed at once proved to be more than the city could handle due to lack of resources, the lawyers claimed.

City Attorney Eileen Teichert said that the time protesters spent in jail after they were booked was enough punishment for loitering after park closing hours. The protesters who had been arrested for loitering after park closing hours were released without charges.

However, nine other protesters didn't have their charges dropped because they had been taken into police custody on more than one occasion. Lawyers stated that they expect the individuals with multiple offenses to stand trial with other protesters scheduled for December 13. There is a great possibility that the city of Sacramento may prosecute these defendants in order to make examples of them.

With similar trials being held nationwide, protesters are beginning to understand the limitations to actual justice that can be obtained with formal institutions. Many discover that, when the power of the 1 percent comes into question, governmental bodies swiftly disregard any guarantees made by the First Amendment in favor of profit. Our rights are only recognized when we mobilize on the streets and pressure public leaders to recognize them.

Further Reading

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