Trial opens for District housing advocates arrested at Franklin School

Photo by Associated Press

A jury was selected and the government delivered its opening statement on the first day of trial of six activists arrested for unlawful entry of the Franklin School almost eight months ago. While the defense has yet to make its opening statement, the crux of the trial may hinge on rights of property owners versus use of public property for the public interest. The jury may also hear a great deal about the state of housing and the homeless in the District.

On the afternoon of November 19, 2011 a large black banner was unfurled from the roof of the Franklin School, also known as Franklin Shelter, and a large crowd gathered on the street. The banner said, “Public Property Under Community Control.” Thirteen activists, affiliated with a group called Free Franklin DC, had allegedly broken into the school, formerly a homeless shelter on 13th St. in Downtown DC, and made their way to the roof through a skylight.

In his opening statement, government prosecutor Adam Dinnell sought to persuade the jury that the trial was about the rights of property owners and “whether they want people on their property or not.” The government of Washington, DC owns the building. He stressed that the trial was not about social issues, political issues or “whether the DC government has made good or bad decisions” regarding the use of Franklin School.

Gabriel Bernstein of Free Franklin DC responded to the prosecutor’s opening statement by saying, “Public property is different than a private home. Government is accountable to the people.” He also criticized the District for its handling of the Franklin School. “[The District] attempt[ed] to  claim the shelter as ‘surplus,’ ignoring public petitions. The government has not been responsive to the people it serves. And to simply make it parallel to a private home reduces government to a [mere] property owner.”

Free Franklin DC seeks to utilize the historic building for public use and ties its abandonment to larger problems of housing and homelessness in the District. In a statement released last November, it said:

The Franklin School building, owned by the city, has been vacant since late September 2008 when the DC government closed the homeless shelter that was housed there right before the beginning of hypothermia season. Despite promises that all of the residents would be given permanent housing, the majority wound up in other over-crowded shelters away from downtown, far from physical and mental health care and other needed services, or were put out onto the street. Three years later the city continues to break its promises to house and shelter DC residents, under-funding housing and shelter programs, including cutting $3 million from services for DC’s 6,500 homeless individuals and $20 million for affordable housing last year alone. The DC government refuses to ensure the most basic human right to housing for everyone in our community.

The trial is scheduled to continue in DC Superior Court at least through July 11.

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