Tag Archives: civil rights

Occupy the Justice System: Jury Nullification

Woman pepper-sprayed. Photo from BagNewsNotes.com

“I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
Thomas Jefferson

The Occupy movement has been instrumental in not only changing our national conversation on issues such as poverty and massive income inequality, but on shedding an unwavering light on the corporate criminal class too. The movement has these moneyed thugs shaking, and one need look no further for evidence of this than in the violent, disproportionate use of force on occupations across America. Perhaps just as importantly, Occupy has inspired a new generation of activists, as well as formerly apathetic ones (mine included) to shake off despair and fear, and join the struggle.

These past few months have been a crash course in what an oligarchic police state looks like, as well as what it truly means to exercise peaceable assembly for a redress of political grievances. At its most fundamental level, the movement has been a wild civics lesson in what it truly means to be a citizen, and how to fight for a better country.

The next civics lesson? Teaching our fellow citizens about another subversive tool that, if Occupy can manage, will change the way Americans participate in our dysfunctional criminal justice system: jury nullification.

Consider the fact that the United States jails more people per capita than any other country in the world: 2.3 million Americans are currently behind bars, and a staggering 25% of those cases are for nonviolent drug offenses. Not only that, but the majority of those incarcerated for these offenses are predominantly African American. This is taking an unimaginable toll on their community. Empowering jurors with the knowledge of jury nullification might be a tremendous first step in correcting an out-of-control criminal “justice” system, and would have the added effect of boldly challenging a monstrous prison-industrial-complex.

Secondly, the power of jury nullification could have far-reaching effects for sustaining and even emboldening the Occupy movement. This is not hard to imagine. Consider this hypothetical:

A group of protesters are on trial for a peaceful sit-in at an empty school or financial institution, in which they were arrested for, say, defiant trespassing. The protesters make the case that they engaged in civil disobedience in order to shed light on an injustice done to the community, such as a school closure due to unfair austerity measures, or predatory lending practices which result in community members getting kicked out of their homes. Now imagine a jury informed of their right to base their verdict on conscience, instead of a modern legal system which is often incapable of flexibility when it comes to cases involving civil disobedience. The jury would not be bound to issue a verdict within the confines a judge (who would not inform them of the right to nullify) has set for them, but instead weigh the merits of a statute in which no one was physically harmed and the “crime” itself was done out of an educated, moral concern for society. They refuse to convict the defendants, despite the fact that the protesters clearly broke a trespassing law. They would have based their verdict on the belief that the law, as applied to this particular circumstance, is unjust – and not on reasonable doubt.

Now take this a step further and imagine if juries across the country began voting this way. It would have the effect of nullifying laws considered unjust. This has already happened in Montana:

In Montana last year, a group of five prospective-jurors said they had a problem with someone receiving a felony for a small amount of marijuana. The prosecutors were freaked out about the “Mutiny in Montana” and were afraid they were not going to be able convince12 jurors in Montana to convict. The judge said, in a major New York Times article, “I’ve never seen this large a number of people express this large a number of reservations” and “it does raise a question about the next case.”

It may have also played a significant role in ending alcohol prohibition and the criminalization of gay sex.

There is a storied precedent for this right of juries, dating back to the year 1215 with the inception of the Magna Carta. Another “high profile” example of this can be found in the story of Pennsylvania’s own William Penn. A more notable instance of the use of jury nullification can be found in the history of the Fugitive Slave Act during the 1850s.

Indeed, the right of juries to nullify is embedded in our very own Bill of Rights.

How exactly to go about informing juries can be dicey, as the example of a retired chemistry professor named Julian P. Heicklen shows:

Earlier this year, prosecutors charged Julian P. Heicklen, a retired chemistry professor, with jury tampering because he stood outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan providing information about jury nullification to passers-by.

Despite the obvious resistance from authorities this effort will create, it’s certainly a new front that the Occupy movement should – and must – open, as it already has with other facets of the American criminal justice system.

Editor’s note: The Project is heading to Washington, D.C. to cover the #J17 events this month. We cannot do it without your generosity, so if you enjoy the coverage and celebration of protest culture that we provide, please consider a small donation of just $10. Thanks so much for your continued support!


No Time for Sound Bytes Now: #OccupyWallStreet is its Own Message

At Liberty Plaza, New York City (CC BY SA Carwil Bjork-James)

A formidable NYPD presence holds one side of the exit ramp while an equally-large throng of soaked, defiant youth face them on the other side. I’m heading back towards the ramp after witnessing a white-shirted police supervisor commandeer a public bus, ordering the passengers off and instructing the driver to turn around and head back to the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge has been shut down for over an hour now. When the bus arrives, hundreds upon hundreds will be arrested and boarded onto the bus, as well as police vans. Meanwhile, the protesters on the street begin chanting to the police: “We pay YOU! We pay YOU!” and “It’s OUR bridge. It’s OUR bridge!” as a cold, driving rain fails to dampen their spirits.

Police square off against protesters. Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Arriving four days earlier, I had hoped for, and was greatly disappointed when, a short list of demands never materialized from the occupation’s General Assembly. Repeal corporate personhood. Remove special interest money from elections. Something. Yet by the fourth day, standing at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge with this standoff, it was clear to me that the Occupy Wall Street movement had evolved.

The occupation at Liberty Plaza may outwardly appear to be just a large encampment of hundreds of tired, exuberant, unwashed people. But it’s an incredibly subversive idea. What the occupation has managed to do thus far is set up a center for agitation on Wall Street’s doorstep, while simultaneously stand up to the most militarized police force in America. In that brave act of defiance, they’ve begun the process of recapturing public space to assemble and foment resistance against a corrupt system, a public space lost to us after 9/11 (with the introduction of “free speech zones”) and just as importantly, begin to remedy the fear and cynicism so many Americans have been feeling for well over a decade now under the hand of a police state and a domestic intelligence apparatus unparalleled in American history. The Founders clearly understood that the right to assemble was of key importance to those who wanted to correct wrongs done by their government. If they could not assemble, they could not achieve their goals. Liberty Plaza is a long-overdue civics lesson.

The protesters have collectively said, simply by holding the plaza: This is OUR square, the PEOPLE’S square, and we have a right to assemble and organize a campaign against the economic and civil injustices perpetrated by the plutocrats and their tax payer-funded security service, the NYPD.

They’ve managed to pull back the curtain and expose the police state which works to protect the ruling elite’s interests at the expense of the citizens they originally took an oath to serve: CIA-trained NYPD counterintelligence squads; videotaping the faces of peaceful protesters to feed into a facial recognition database; commandeering public buses for mass arrests; entrapment; kettling and pepper spray. And perhaps the most audacious: A $4.6 million bribe, ostensibly for new laptops, given by JP Morgan to the NYPD. All of this against peaceful citizens who are the living embodiment of a wildly-popular sentiment in America since 2008: the rich and powerful in this country have gotten away with too much. When Americans demand fundamental change and refuse to rely on or even trust a thoroughly-corrupt system to achieve that change, they must begin at the root of their oppression, and it’s as simple an idea as occupying public space in the face of police intimidation.

This movement is only getting started, with many, many cities developing their own occupations. Maybe I’m wrong, but perhaps it’s time to just let this people-powered movement grow on its own, because you can’t package an idea whose time has come into one or two pithy sound bytes. As one protester told me: “It’s bigger than one or two issues because it’s not about reforming the hopelessly corrupt system we have. This is about creating a new system entirely.”

If you would like to donate to #OccupyWallStreet, visit the New York City General Assembly website.

The Project is leaving Wall Street to report on the Boston occupation, and then to Washington D.C. for the major October 6th occupation in our nation’s capital, but we can’t do it without your help. If you enjoy my work and would like to help me cover expenses such as travel, food and gear, please consider donating to the David and Goliath Project’s #Occupy Media Fund.


Civil OBEDIENCE Will Kill Us If We Let It.

Photo by Ariel Shearer

By Ariel Shearer

Editor’s Note: The Project is proud to introduce our latest contributor, Ariel Shearer (@arielshearer). Ariel is studying journalism and political science at Emerson College, and is the web producer at The Boston Phoenix (@BostonPhoenix). This editorial is cross-posted on Ariel’s blog, Wait, What is the Internet?

After reading this article in the New York Times’ 9/11 supplement: “Civil Liberties Today” by Adam Liptak — I’ve been thinking a lot about our currently wayward democracy and the widespread youth apathy epidemic.

After reading an article from 1970, titled “The Problem is Civil Obedience” by Howard Zinn — similarities between now and then are scary.

I was inspired to write this essay in response to a prof question.

What are the implications of Zinn’s argument regarding the law and its relationship to powerless groups?

Zinn is quite clear in his message – those rendered “powerless” by the political system itself are in fact well-endowed with the power of opposition. As we read last week, “America is a country founded on dissent” (Haynes). The power of opposition is the power that wrote the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. Just plain power – as the government would have us believe in these times – is something that comes from money, clout, and peer support. That means someone like a politician. This is a convenient and self-establishing definition.

But where do these politicians really come by their power? The doctrine meant to limit government powers (Bill of Rights) is where they take their authoritative roles from, written both implicitly and explicitly and further defined/assigned by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is supposed to be a detached body – and historically is seated by fogies far older than popular opinion. Due process seems to flow at the same speed as it did when the Bill of Rights was written. The Internet generation can’t even comprehend such ineffectiveness in their video games, so watching the snail’s pace of politics has left most of them a bit bored.

What I wish I could tell the rest of my generation to try and wake them up, to demand a government that reflects the speed at which they think and grow: The same words used to tell the government what they cannot do to us (and therefore what they can do to us) are the same words used to defend and protect all that we can do as citizens – we all share the same source of power. And we’re all promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And as a society it’s obvious we settle for 1 out of 3.

How does the government exercise power? They influence our lives oppressively with taxes and policing, and positively by providing socialized services like public transportation and fire stations. It’s important to remember, however, when the government tries to use social works as a bargaining chip –that they are humans too. Politicians have families and homes they wouldn’t want to see burn to the ground because they couldn’t afford to hire fire fighters.

Politicians are citizens that directly benefit from the same services they demand praise and votes for providing to society.

This game of ideological tug-of-war between who knows best, the people or the government, has existed as long as politics itself. Somehow, over hundreds of years, societies managed to evolve and progress, to demand better qualities of life and better government… The existence of social democracies like France and the United States, the most progressive form of governance to date, proves the effectiveness of rebellion, opposition to government, and social revolution.

Tracing history from Hellenic Greek times proves that it isn’t the state leaders who enable progress within a society –but rather it is the opposition to political leadership, the People, who fuel progress. The People have consistently reformed government just as consistently as state leaders have overstepped their totalitarian roles throughout history.

One of the most hard-hitting points Zinn makes in The Problem is Civil Obedience, is the mass devastation caused by civil obedience, by following the demands of government without opposition. His example is Hitler – and I think that says everything that needs to be said about that.

When we adhere, and obey, it’s much like settling into a cubicle knowing you’ll never take a greater role within that company. We must constantly push our government, and encourage our fellow citizens, to demand progress — because despite apathy being “the new black,” history has taught that it’s up to us, the “powerless,” to improve society for all living humans, and for all future generations to come.

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#OccupyWallStreet Activists Conduct a Trial Run, Creating More Questions than Answers (w/ video)

via Adbusters.org

On September 1st, 2011, activists organizing the upcoming September 17th Occupy Wall Street action decided they would test law enforcement response by spending the night on Wall Street “in a peaceful demonstration to confirm their Constitutional rights.”

Below is a video produced by Occupy Wall Street’s Arts Committee:

The nine activists were arrested for legally and peaceably assembling on a public sidewalk. According to a 2000 federal ruling, the use of

“public sleeping as a means of symbolic expression” is allowed on public sidewalks in New York City as long as you do not block pedestrians. See METROPOLITAN COUNCIL, INC., Plaintiff, -against- HOWARD SAFIR, Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, et al., June 12, 2000 [99 F. Supp. 2d 438; 2000 U.S. Dist.]

It must be stressed that the NYPD violated these activists’ rights by arresting and detaining them. Furthermore, no permit is necessary for a prolonged assembly on a public sidewalk. The only prohibition is that there be no camping (i.e. use of tents) because that would obviously impede pedestrian travel. I’ve noticed, especially on the event sponsor’s website, encouragement to bring a tent to the event. Setting up tents is not a good idea.

The sense from one of the activists present was that the police didn’t want to arrest them, and that the order to detain them came from a higher source. This cannot be fully confirmed, and should be considered speculation, although it certainly isn’t far-fetched considering the very high probability that organizers are under surveillance (via US Day of Rage):

Citizens have been prevented from exercising their right to peaceable assemble in New York City because the force established to serve and protect civil society, the NYPD, has become a counter-intel paramilitary force. CIA training has turned their operations into one of the “most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies“. Just last week the New York’s police commissioner confirmed that a CIA officer is even working out of police headquarters.

The arrests and detentions, however, raise more questions: will the NYPD have the audacity to violate protestors rights en masse when they begin their occupation? And as Alexa O’ Brien (@carwinb), an organizer for US Day of Rage astutely pointed out to me, on a wider public relations level, can Mayor Bloomberg afford to be seen as defending Wall Street criminals from peaceful, justified public outrage at the American financial elite? The occupation will no doubt draw attention to the fact that no one on Wall Street has been prosecuted yet for crimes committed against Main Street. In addition, using taxpayer-funded police to defend major financial institutions, many of which pay absolutely nothing in taxes, is hard to justify.

Below are resources for activists in New York City, via the Occupy Wall Street (@OccupyWallStreet) website:

Demonstrating in New York City
What to Do If You’re Stopped by the Police

Please subscribe to The Project to stay up to date on the latest developments concerning the September 17th occupation, including on the ground coverage of the event that weekend.


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