OccuBarn trial: Architect vouches for safety

Architect’s original drawing of OccuBarn

On Day 3 of the OccuBarn trial (June 18), the defense brought architect Kash Bennett to the stand to testify as an expert witness. Bennett works for the firm RTKL Associates, Inc. The architect who actually designed the structure has chosen to remain anonymous.

Charges against the defendants include failure to obey in an emergency situation. Throughout the trial, defense counsel has been attempting to poke a hole in the assumption that this was an emergency situation in the first place. One plank in police rationale for declaring an emergency is that the structure was dangerous and therefore a threat to public safety.

The defense needs to address safety concerns brought up in testimony by prosecution witnesses. Lt. Robert LaChance of U.S. Park Police said he heard “cracking” noises and that the structure started to collapse when police were extricating the last of the Occupiers from the rafters. And the DC Regulatory Affairs inspector who posted “Danger” signs on the OccuBarn testified that by definition the structure was not safe because it had not gone through the permitting process.

Bennet prepared for testimony by reviewing blueprints, drawings, and a 3-D “sketch-up” and found that they were in accordance with many pictures of the structure “in location.” The OccuBarn was intended to be a temporary structure, and Bennett testified that generally such structures are not any less stable, but “over time” one could be concerned with stability since they have no embedded foundation.

On an easel, Bennett drew diagrams to demonstrate architecturally sound design principles, including triangulation and cross-bracing, and compared them with the design of the OccuBarn. He noted that some of the wooden beams were larger than standard for this type of structure.

“This structure in my estimation is actually overbuilt,” he said, explaining that usually a structure is constructed only as safe and functional as necessary. “Everything else is extra cost. [This structure has] an extra margin of safety.” He concluded that it was built in a structurally sound way, repeatedly calling it “strong” and “robust.”

Viewing a photo of Park Service bulldozers demolishing the building, he pointed out how strong the structure was. “See how difficult it was for the demolition crew to take it down,” he said.

Cracking noises, such as those reported by Lt. LaChance, could be accounted for by “settling,” or “a little play in the joinery.”

While he didn’t calculate wind lodes on the structure, saying that such calculations would depend in part on information he didn’t have, such as wood grade, he claimed that it was irrelevant in a structure both small and sturdy. Large temporary structures like concert venues might need wind lodes calculated, but under strong winds, he said, “other tents in the park would be in danger before this would flex a millimeter.”

Under cross-examination, Bennett admitted that “without testing it, you couldn’t be 100% certain [of structural integrity].” But he was confident in his evaluative judgment, saying, “Can a human lift an elephant? The answer is obvious.”

The DC Regulatory Agency inspector testimony and the prosecution’s cross-examination of Bennett relied heavily on demonstrating non-compliance with DC building code. On Day 4, the prosecution will bring its own expert witness, Jatinder Khokhar, to the stand to rebut Bennett’s testimony and testify on building codes, inspection and the permitting process.

McPherson Park, like all parks in the District, is federal land, and it’s not even certain that DC Code even applies. We expect defense counsel to pull that punch in the late stages of trial.

OccuBarn trial: Emergency situation

Some facets of the OccuBarn trial go to the heart of First Amendment issues dogging Occupy movement protests. One of those issues is discretionary powers of police–how laws governing them are conceived, and how those powers are used and abused.

Since findings of fact could very likely go against the defendants in the OccuBarn trial, defense counsel Jeff Light has gone for the jugular in attacking the substantive basis of the charges themselves. And, not only is he challenging the constitutionality of the statutes, he’s attacking the situational basis of one charge in particular: “failure to obey order – emergency.” All fourteen defendants face this charge.

Light is calling into question whether the scene at McPherson Park on December 4, 2011 warranted a declaration of emergency by the police, and he furthermore asserts that they exercised discretionary powers at odds with First Amendment rights.

In the motion to dismiss, he cites an appellate court ruling (Washington Mobilization Committee v. Cullinane) which struck down the District police lines regulation (of which this emergency statute is a part) for being overly broad:

It is difficult to conceive of a more pernicious prescription. A police officer is given unfettered discretion to issue any order he thinks reasonable and then is allowed to initiate criminal proceedings against a person who disobeys the order.

The Catch-22 here is obvious, especially to seasoned protestors. As the motion to dismiss points out, an unjustified order to disperse, for example, can lead to arrest for loitering. During trial, Light said, “For the protection of persons and property, the circumstances are so broad that there are no limits on a police officer’s discretion and whether he believes that it’s necessary [to declare an emergency].” Without express guidelines, police may have the power to criminalize harmless conduct.

Prosecutor Sean Farrelly countered that there was no more discretion involved in declaring an emergency than for a police officer to determine whether a crime was being committed, but he agreed that police could declare an emergency whenever they wanted to.

He gave specific rationale for the police decision to declare an emergency situation at McPherson Park: the OccuBarn structure was unsafe, there were hundreds of people in the park, and it was necessary to shut down traffic around the park.

Judge Elizabeth Wingo denied the motion to dismiss, saying, “The entirety of the statute is aimed at giving police officers authority to deal with an emergency.”

The judge didn’t find the defense’s direct challenges to the statute based on over breadth and vagueness persuasive, but going forward the defense strategy clearly will be attacking the rationale for the police’s declaration.

(Photo by coolrevolution.net)

OccuBarn trial: Background

Thinking back to December 4, 2011 when Occupy DC erected the OccuBarn in McPherson Park, it’s worth remembering that violent police confrontations with the Occupy movement were happening with great frequency. Paramilitarized police of metropolitan areas had the opportunity to try out on Occupy protestors all the techniques they had learned–and many of the toys they had acquired–in their post-9/11 homeland security training. Moreover, iconoclastic events like the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from New York’s Zuccotti Park were still fresh news. That eviction had only just taken place on November 15.

In light of the recent clashes with police forces, it took a lot of chutzpah to raise the Barn–the “temporary structure” intended to shield General Assemblies and other meetings from the winter cold.  And, as trial witness Sara Shaw put it, it also “served as a symbol. We were protesting foreclosures, the rise of homelessness. [With the structure,] we were providing a shelter.” Wooden, rectangular, about 30 feet long and at least 15 feet high, the OccuBarn was a provocation, and there was no question that National Park Police were going to respond.

Moving in early that crisp December morning, Park Police demanded that the structure be disassembled. In spite of a somewhat confused emergency General Assembly, which ultimately decided to comply with the order, 23 people conducted an autonomous action, stationing themselves within the structure or climbing into the rafters. An all-day stand-off ensued.

More than six months later, 14 defendants are on trial for minor offenses–all of them charged with failure to obey in an emergency situation, and one additionally charged with public indecency and urinating in public. The trial is actually being conducted in traffic court by Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Wingo.

It’s speculation, but Judge Wingo may be enjoying defense counsel’s approach–challenging the basis of the statutes on Constitutional grounds. In his motions to dismiss, Occupy DC attorney Jeff Light essentially asked the judge to strike down District laws on obscenity and public indecency, public urination and failure to obey police.

Talk about chutzpah.

A reminder: the recurring theme of the preliminary hearing on May 30 was Judge Wingo’s excoriation of the prosecutor’s office for failing to meet filing deadlines. She opened Day 1 by asking, “Is the government ready for trial?”

Homeowner in foreclosure interrupts testimony of JP Morgan CEO responsible for $2 billion loss

Retired paramedic Deborah Harris (photo by coolrevolution.net)

A woman who disrupted a Senate Banking Committee hearing on June 13 was arrested along with five others from the housing advocacy organization Occupy Our Homes DC. Deborah Harris interrupted the opening statement of JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who was giving testimony on his bank’s recent $2 billion losses in hedge fund investments. Her home is being foreclosed on by Chase Bank.

The Raw Story reports that protestors yelled, “Stop foreclosures now, stop foreclosures now!” before being escorted out of the hearing by Capitol Police.

Though Dimon remained stone-faced, the demonstrators have numerous reasons to protest the financial institution for its history of questionable foreclosures.

JPMorgan Chase has been sued by state attorneys general and others for alleged foreclosure fraud. They have also been twice sued for subprime lending practices that led to the housing finance crisis in 2008, and for automating the foreclosure process through robo-signing, the practice of a bank employee signing thousands of documents and affidavits without verifying the information contained in the document or affidavit.

Last week Occupy Our Homes DC, which has publicized Harris’ case as part of its campaign to raise awareness of epidemic foreclosures in the area, conducted a sit-in of Chase Home Loan Modification offices in Washington, DC in an effort to gain a negotiation for the retired paramedic.

“It was powerful for Deborah to be able to confront and stand up to Jamie Dimon,” Rooj Alwazir of Occupy Our Homes DC said, “And tell her story of why he’s stealing her home of 17 years, [at the same time that] he’s trying to justify a $2 billion loss [as a result of] his own negligence.”

Occupation at McPherson Park ends, but Occupy movement in DC continues

The National Park Service moved in Tuesday morning to remove the last vestiges of the Occupy DC protest at McPherson Park. Park Service employees loaded debris into two trucks as several Park Police officers–including the familiar Sgt. Reid–stood watch at the foot of the statue of General McPherson. The last two nights the protest structures, including tents, signs and art, were demolished.

McPherson Park hadn’t served as a full-fledged Occupation since February 4, when Park Police raided it and removed the majority of tents. Subsequently, officers patrolled to enforce a no-sleeping policy.

The last month has seen the further detachment of Occupy DC from the park, as ithe number of tents shrank and the group acquired office space nearby, sponsored by union SEIU.

Some Occupiers no longer took pride in what remained of the often messy camp and wanted to clear it themselves. One of the witnesses to the Park Services’s clean-up operation, a homeless man named RB, said Occupy DC lacked control over who was hanging out in their protest space.

“When you start a revolution of sorts you don’t put out an application,” he said. “There could be hangers on the fringe who are not part of the movement.” He complained of heavy drug use.

Several of those affiliated with Occupy DC have contended that the McPherson camp was a tactic and that its termination doesn’t represent the health of the movement itself.

McPherson laid waste

Early Monday morning the remaining Occupy DC tents were demolished, debris scattered throughout the park. First reports blame six intoxicated men with laying waste to the park.

At 8:30am, John Zangas tweeted that several people “became rambunctious” and tore down every structure in the park.

The four remaining tents consisted of the library, the former information tent, a personal tent and a storage tent containing art and supplies. The majority of the books had already been removed from the library. At first glance, the only things missing were the finely lettered signs recently installed by Barry Knight.

At 11am, only one person was trying to clean up. Sweet, originally from Occupy Eugene and lately of Occupy DC, was trying to “consolidate” the mess.

As people mingled after Occupy DC’s People’s Summit on Sunday evening, one person proposed removing the tents and invited someone to block the proposal. The gathering was not a general assembly.

UPDATE: The tornado-like damage inflicted on McPherson last night seems to be only one part of a larger narrative unfolding within Occupy DC. While it is unconfirmed exactly who demolished what remained of the Occupy DC camp at the park, what is clear is that attitudes of Occupiers toward their Occupation site have dramatically changed.

The Sleepful Protest at Bank of America on Vermont and L was reportedly notified of the damage between 4 and 5am, yet only one person (again reportedly) went to check it out.

The news went out on Twitter early in the morning, yet by 11am only one person was in the park cleaning up debris.

Compare this response to late January, when the Tent of Dreams served as a clarion call of defiance directed toward the National Park Service, who seemed poised to evict Occupy DC from the park at any moment. Hundreds flocked to McPherson when summoned.

This is also a dramatic difference from late March, when Park Police tore down the information tent. The anger and defiance was so great, DC Occupiers took to the streets that very evening in protest.

There has been significant debate lately within Occupy DC whether to continue its presence at McPherson. Cleanliness has been a problem, and many people drink alcohol at night, leading to arrests. This appearance and behavior reflect poorly on Occupy DC.

Still, many people strongly support the tactic of Occupation. “Occupying a public space is important no matter what any body says,” Feriha Kaya said, responding to the destruction. “Have you heard of any Occupation that has taken down its own tents?”

[Note: On April 18, Occupy New Haven decided to disassemble tents after a court ruling against them. The decision sparked internal dissent, and twelve New Haven Occupiers were arrested resisting the dismantlement of their camp. (hat tip: @msamricth)]

UPDATE: Livestreamers Carlisle and Austin Dalton erect what they call the “McPherson Fortress.”

“They [the people who wanted the park destroyed] can kiss my ass,” Austin says.