Franklin School advocates convicted, remain determined to fight homelessness

Photo by Associated Press

After three days of trial, a jury delivered a guilty verdict to six defendants charged with unlawful entry of public property, a felony offense. The six were among thirteen people affiliated with organization Free Franklin DC, which orchestrated a political action intended to draw attention to the abandoned state of the building, formerly used as a homeless shelter.  On November 19, 2011, they were arrested after they entered the vacant building, ascended to the roof of the Franklin School and unfurled a large black banner saying, “Property Under Community Control.”

Judge Patricia Broderick sentenced the defendants to 5 days in jail, suspended, 3 months unsupervised probation and a $50 fine. She further instructed them to stay away from the Franklin School, also known as the Franklin Shelter, located on 13th St. across from Franklin Park. In handing down the light sentence which lacked a requirement of community service, she remarked, “Most of what they do is community service.”

Yet the social issues of homelessness and usage of public resources that the defendants and their supporters sought to highlight had a hard time being voiced in the courtroom. Judge Broderick declared, “This is not a trial by political process.” She denied defendants recourse on legal grounds to most of the good faith defense, which would have allowed testimony about the past contentious struggle with District government over the building’s usage. She also seemed determined to keep the trial from becoming a political platform and was adamant that the jury wouldn’t be swayed by outside influences, such as Free Franklin DC t-shirts worn by some audience members.

The prosecution also sought to keep political and social issues from entering into play. Free Franklin DC supporter Ray Valentine said the government “worked hard to prevent any mention of the shameful history of this building and others like it.”

The defense never disputed that the six defendants entered the building on November 19, but the government had to meet a high burden of proof. In an unusual tactic, the defense challenged the actual ownership of the building, contending that it belonged to the community, not to the District government, and therefore the community was entitled to determine how it should best be used. Defense counsel Kanita Williams said that the defendants entered with the good faith belief that they weren’t committing an illegal act, and she repeatedly stressed that they entered through an open door, bringing with them cleaning supplies in order to “restore” the building. Defendant pro se Jesse Schultz said, “We had reason to believe that we were welcome in the Franklin Shelter.”

The strategy of government prosecutor Adam Dinnell however was to keep the case a simple matter of unlawful entry. In his opening statement to the jury, he said, “This case is about property rights, and the rights of an owner to control whether they want people on their property or not.”  Three government witnesses testified that the legal property owner is the District government, and they also gave testimony which conflicted with the defense’s assertion that they entered freely. “If they just walked through an open door, why did it take the police three hours to get in?” Dinnell asked, referring to a request for the fire department’s aid. He contested the defendants’ presumption of authority, saying that their decision to act “doesn’t trump the decisions of elected officials. It didn’t entitle them to take over the building.”

Defendant Jesse Schultz chose to act as his own attorney during the proceedings because “I felt there was a need for someone to introduce things a lawyer can’t without risking their bar card.”

“For me,” he said, ”the verdict shows that the public still has to follow the system no matter how corrupt the system has become, no matter how much damage the judicial system is a part of it. A lot of normal people aren’t ready to rebel yet. Hopefully that will change.”

Another Free Franklin DC community member wasn’t pleased with the verdict but pointed out that publicity was positive. “I think it’s good that the defendants had the opportunity to make a case in front of the jury and re-state demands, bring more attention to the issue,” DC resident Anna Duncan said. “The defendants showed throughout the trial that the Franklin building belongs to the people, and the community should be the one who decides what to do with it.”

Defendant Rosa Lozano, who testified during trial, said, “The real crime here is the mismanagement of public resources like Franklin and the lack of services for DC’s homeless.”

The organization seems determined to keep organizing and challenging District officials to address the future of the Franklin School. “We’ll continue to fight to get public property used to meet community needs,” Duncan said.

Schultz emphasized that Franklin School represented a larger cause. “Franklin is an essential piece in a battle between people and money. Look where it’s located, on K St., where money and politics intersect.”

The defendants intend to appeal their sentence.

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.