NEW YORK – Twenty activists were convicted Friday of disorderly conduct at a protest over a contentious police policy, ending a trial that they used to spotlight their message but that prosecutors said was about the conduct of the protesters, not the police.
A Manhattan judge convicted all the defendants in one of the biggest political protest group trials in the city in recent years. It drew extra attention for counting Princeton University professor and civil rights advocate Cornel West among the defendants, arrested Oct. 21 while standing in front of a police station door to protest the stopping, questioning and sometimes frisking of hundreds of thousands of people annually.
"(The court) did justice. I disagree, but that is what democracy is all about," West said after court.
Convicted of an offense that is classified as a violation, not a crime, he and 18 of the others were sentenced to time served, the relatively brief period they were in custody after their arrests. One defendant, a performance artist who had gotten into a vehement exchange with prosecutors on the witness stand, was sentenced to two days of community service.
The demonstrators stood in front of a Harlem police precinct, carrying signs and chanting slogans opposing the stop-and-frisk tactic.
Prosecutors said the protesters blocked the sidewalk and stationhouse entrance and ignored an order to move, even after a police captain went to them one-by-one to warn that they would be arrested. Prosecutors argued the demonstrators were seeking to stress their point by getting arrested, and so they did.
"Each chose to defy an order to clear a path to the stationhouse door . . . so that they could have this trial," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Michelle Bayer said in an opening statement.
Some demonstrators said they had been willing to risk ending up in custody, but they argued that they didn't break the law.
The demonstrators "educated themselves as to where that line was" between constitutionally protected protest and breaking the law, "and they deliberately went right up to the cutting edge," defense lawyer Paul L. Mills said in a closing argument. "That's what gets attention, and that's what the First Amendment respects."
The protesters followed a police instruction to move back to leave a path on the sidewalk, and no one was kept from entering or leaving a stationhouse that had two doors, they and their lawyers said. The police orders were confusing and sometimes inaudible, they added.
The demonstrators took the trial as an opportunity to sound their message from the witness stand. All but one testified, sometimes recounting his or her stop-and-frisk experiences.
The New York Police Department conducted more than 684,000 of the street stops last year. Police say those stopped were behaving suspiciously — by moving furtively or carrying a pry bar, for instance — but they weren't necessarily suspects sought in any particular crime.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said police can stop and question people based on "reasonable suspicion," and the NYPD says the stops are a valuable crime-fighting tool. While relatively few — 12 percent last year — result in arrests or summonses, the stops also turned up more than 8,200 weapons, including 819 guns, police said.
To opponents, stop-and-frisks treat innocent people with suspicion and reflect racial profiling. About 87 percent of those stopped were minorities, compared to 53 percent of New York City's population.
The demonstrators were disappointed by the judge's verdict but not surprised, Mills said.
"You can't fight the system and be surprised when things don't go your way in a government proceeding," he said. But, he added, "It became an extraordinary and uplifting experience for us, that we were involved in it and involved with each other."
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