Major Occupy Court Victory -- 31 Occupy Philly Protesters Acquitted on All Charges

I interviewed Paul Hetznecker, one of the lead attorneys among a team of 14 lawyers who defended 31 Occupy Philly protesters who were arrested on November 30, 2011, shortly after Occupy Philly was shut down.
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I interviewed Paul Hetznecker, one of the lead attorneys among a team of 14 lawyers who defended 31 Occupy Philly protesters who were arrested on November 30, 2011, shortly after Occupy Philly was shut down. Their trial was Thursday, April 26 and every protester was acquitted of all charges -- obstruction of a highway, failure to disperse and conspiracy. Hetznecker discussed the implications for Occupy Wall Street protesters nationwide.

The following is an edited, partial transcript of the audio interview from the Rob Kall Bottom up Radio Show (WNJC 1360 AM) The link to the audio MP3 is included at the bottom of the transcript.

Paul Hetznecker on Acquittal of 31 Occupy Protesters

We had a team of 14 lawyers working on this particular case. We had a previous victory in February where we had a phenomenal team of lawyers working with the clients. It was a team effort and I was very proud to be a part of it.

Rob Kall: tell me about what happened. There were 31 occupy protesters. They were arrested after the police basically tore down Occupy Philly at the end of November. They were walking in the streets. What actually happened there? And what is the significance of the acquittal both for Occupy Philly and nationally, for the Occupy movement.

Paul Hetznecker: Let me give you some background on what happened. You're absolutely correct. Let me give you some historical context to the legal proceedings and then let me talk about the trial yesterday in conjunction with what was behind the trial, in terms of the conviction.

There were four separate major cases in Philly.

Th first involved a group of occupy protesters who were outside the Philadelphia Police Administration building -- police headquarters. That trial was in February and resulted in acquittal. There were two additional protests which resulted in arrests. One was a Wells Fargo Bank and one at Comcast Headquarters -- those two trials are coming up in June.

Now with respect to the eviction -- we've kind of titled that the eviction trial -- you're absolutely correct Rob. That arose out of late November 29 and the early morning hours of November 30, when the city of Philadelphia initiated their eviction of the Dilworth Plaza encampment where the occupy Philadelphia protesters had been for 53 days. There had been an eviction notice issued. There's also some controversy because there had been some discussion about moving the encampment across the street to another plaza and the city then reneged on that. But that's really a separate story which is an interesting part of it, but I can tell you that on the night of the eviction there had been extensive police planning and staging. And what, essentially, the police did was move in with patrol officers on bikes, riot control officers, fire trucks and sanitation crews. They blocked off the surrounding streets around the plaza at City hall and they began to move in.

When they moved in, they discovered, that while most of the infrastructure -- tents, etc. was still there, there were only two people on the plaza. The rest of the people who had remained, primarily, were across the street at 15th and Market. They had secured the plaza at approximately 1:30 (AM).

This was established on cross examination of the chief civil affairs officer and he was in charge of their execution of the eviction process and he admitted that by 1:30 in the morning the eviction had been completed at least in respect to the plaza.

Then there were a series of events that led up to the arrests (53 protesters).

There was a press conference by the police.

From 1:30 to 4;30 in the morning there was a march -- at one point, on 15th street, blocks away from City hall -- that the police commenced arrests of several of the protesters.

Police reported there were 400 people.

There was an order issued by the chief of civil affairs for marchers to leave the street and go on the sidewalk, which was complied with.

It was at that point that the order to arrest was effectuated.

I found that there was a decision by the top brass of the Philadelphia police department, probably in conjunction with the Mayor's office that "this was going to end" I learned on cross examination.

It was clear from the video that the arrest at the time was a clear violation of an ongoing, wonderful expression of first amendment rights over the 53 days. There were many marches during the 53 days, numerous marches during the day and night, where the police escorted those marchers, protecting their first amendment rights throughout the process -- escorted them throughout the city. The only difference here was the police had in their minds, and directives, that they were going to make arrests that night. And that's exactly what they did.

After complying with the order to leave the street, and stepping onto the sidewalk, they were arrested one by one -- and that cordoned off group of people -- they were blocked off by bike cops both north and south, those 53 people were arrested.

Rob: but the trial only had 31 people. Why was that.

Hetznecker: the other people went through a diversionary alternative program that gave them the opportunity to do 10 or 12 hours of community service and two individuals had been cordoned off and they had no evidence against those two. The rest proceeded to trial and fortunately, were acquitted.

I think it has a profound impact on the movement.

This is a very important time in our country's history. I don't think it's lost on those who have been watching the occupy movement -- both the inception of the movement and and ongoing issues that the movement has raises. This is an important time for this country because we have a chance to closely examine the emergent corporate state and the corresponding demise of our democracy. And I think that equally important is the spotlight the movement has put on the heart and soul of our democracy -- the right to speak freely, to assemble, to protest, to express shared ideas through a collective public voice, and the first amendment is one of the principal bulwarks against a police state.

Voices of dissent in this country, reflecting the wonderful celebration last spring in what we call the Arab Spring, that particular expression of democratic need and democratic voices and the struggle for democracy in those countries parallels the struggle that our country essentially began 250 years ago, not only in the inception of this nation and the establishment of the constitution and the bill of rights, but in the ongoing social struggles and social movements and movements for social justice throughout the course of our history. They have all been essentially the battleground having been the first amendment, and whether the first amendment is protected by the state or by the courts or not.

I think it sends a number of important messages. One is we celebrate the grand tradition of free expression and the Occupy movement's voice reminds us to be vigilant on two fronts. One is that the power of the corporate state cannot go unchecked if democracy is to survive. The second is that the heart of our democracy is our ability to raise our voices free from governmental intrusion -- our voices of dissent -- so those voices are not criminalized, so dissent will not be criminalized in this country. But in fact, the first amendment and the ability to raise one's voice against the powers that be -- speak truth to power -- so to speak, is the classic mantra. That voice of dissent is also the call to freedom. And that freedom has also been expressed repeatedly, throughout our country's history, with every movement for social justice, whether it was the right to vote for women or the labor movement in the 20s and 30s and 40s and the civil rights movement and the movement to oppose the war in Vietnam. All those movements were movements for justice, to create a better society, to put the spotlight on the dark places where government has undermined democracy.

Each one of those movements is a critical part in our history and the occupy movement now is in line is another chapter in the struggle for social justice, highlighting, in the twenty-first century what is really the most important issue, control over our society and the usurpation of democracy by this emerging corporate state.

On a number of different levels it sends a message that the courts, at least in Philadelphia, have recognized the value, the tradition and the importance of the first amendment expressing ideas that may be initially difficult for many, but clearly, as we've seen in this movement, embraced by many. It's a very powerful statement and i feel it's an historical one.

Rob: How does this affect the occupy movement nationwide?

Paul: I hope it has a direct effect. I hope it emboldens those who are in the movement to say that what we have done, in highlighting the important issues -- the struggle for social justice against the power of the corporate state on multiple levels -- environmental issues, labor issues, issues involving unjust incarceration, and certainly the racial inequality within the criminal justice system -- all the issues that have coalesced, police brutality, all those issues that have kind of coalesced in the occupy movement are, hopefully emboldened by recognition in Philadelphia that the first amendment is alive and well and will be protected despite the intrusions by the police -- in this particular case, by the unlawful arrests of those expressing their first amendment rights.

It has a powerful effect across the nation and should be seen not just as a legal victory but as a political victory as well.

It's a very powerful statement and I feel it's an historical one.

Rob Kall: You've, in the past, gone on, after securing dropping of charges or acquittals, to pursue civil damages. Will that happen here.

Hetznecker goes on to discuss police actions and patterns:

(Police) Commissioner Ramsey has been known, based on his work in Washington, for having very little regard for first amendment rights.

This is the concern I have. There has been times when the standard operating procedure by federal and local authorities, at the 2000 Republican convention and every one since, democratic or republican, in the host cities responding to the federal mandate to "clear the streets" and the criminalizing of dissent -- that kind of strategy has been employed in each city where there has been a host convention since 2000. In Philadelphia in 2000, and the way I'm tying this in, is there was very little concern if the police violated people's rights. "get them off the street during the course of the convention and we could care less if they were convicted or not. "

In Philadelphia they were acquitted -- over 90 percent -- there were over 400 people arrested in various places. And then, since that time, the employed strategy by most municipalities, in coordination with the federal government is to get the protesters off the street, in large part a violation of their first amendment rights -- then give them diversionary programs. They're less concerned with convictions after the fact. They're more concerned with cataloguing and identifying dissenters and protesters and having swept off the streets.

That's my concern -- that the police feel emboldened that the first amendment is not a bulwark for protections against their illegal conduct because they are not concerned about the consequences, because they are simply concerned about the immediate moment. So, their unwillingness to recognize the limits of their power and the arbitrary nature of their power at a particular time means there's no deterrent. And the only deterrent that offers us in the system is a civil lawsuit -- is to say that you have violated the first amendment rights of these individuals and as a result of that there has to be consequences. In large part those are money damages. So it's an effort more, essentially to redress the grievances. In large part, that's what we're left with to seek deterrence. In conjunction with that, there may or may not be the possibility of seeking an injunction as well, to prevent future conduct. But that's a very difficult hurdle to overcome.

I can't tell you that there are any defendants who will become civil plaintiffs in the near future, but it's certainly something we've contemplated and will have further discussions about.

I am very honored to have been a part of this. I've had a long history of representing protesters, demonstrators, those individuals who have been willing to stand up to power and make their voices heard and I have to say that Iam very proud of the young people and older people the people who have participated in this movement. I'm very proud to be a part of it. I'm proud of the team who participated in this as well". There's been a wonderful team of lawyers involved in the pre-trial preparation.

it's been a wonderful experience. We have two more trials to go. We are hoping we will have the first amendment vindicated in those cases. Those cases are a little different factually, but we're certainly very excited as a group of lawyers and feel honored and proud to be a part of it.

Listen to the MP3 audio interview with Paul Hetznecker here.

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