How We Won the Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge

It is not often that one can claim to have beaten the New York City District Attorney’s office. The District Attorney usually operates with brutal efficiency as it prosecutes, plea bargains and convicts thousands of people each year. However, they do not come up against a person like me very often. I was arrested for a political crime, namely marching over the Brooklyn Bridge with 700 other Occupy Wall Street (OWS) supporters. More important than that, I had nearly unlimited access to legal representation through the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), a group that was committed to playing the long game with my prosecutors in the DA’s office.

The march over the Bridge represented a critical moment for OWS. The Mayor’s office was clearly looking for an event that they could use to discredit the growing movement. In previous weeks instances of heavy handed police tactics had backfired in the media. The New York Police Department and, by extension, Mayor Bloomberg looked like tyrants preying on outraged young middle class white protestors with tools of violence usually reserved for young people of color. A mass arrest of law breakers on the bridge might have stemmed this tide. Bloomberg thought he could flip the bad press on the protesters by counterpoising them to law abiding citizens who traveled over the bridge legally everyday while raising the costs of participating in OWS by sending the message that anyone could be arrested at any time.

As state tactics go, one out of two is not bad. The Mayor failed to win the media war. The arrest of 700 of us on the Bridge only served to internationalize the struggle. The “Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge” created a focal point for the movement — it allowed us to show numbers, it highlighted our commitment to the cause of OWS and it further demonstrated the frustration and futility of governmental agencies who were attempting to handle our critique. Yet, the mass arrests did have an effect inside of the movement. Marchers were definitely looking over their shoulders and the price for participation was raised for newcomers — each would have to be willing to face arrest to join the ranks of OWS.

Some spectacular acts of civil disobedience followed. If we were going to face arrest, we might as well make it be worth it. Arrests should occur on our terms not the NYPD or the Mayor’s. Shutting down Wall Street or an Arms Manufacturers Conference was far better than being trapped on the Bridge. By this time, I was mostly on the sidelines — facing three minor charges and preparing to decide whether to take a deal offered by the District Attorney or fight it out in court.

Having the of support of the NLG certainly helped this decision. Having a full time job with vacation days helped. And having so many people, my partner, my students, political friends, FB friends and co-workers, supporting me cinched it. I decided to fight out for the long term in court. This decision was made in October 2011.

My court appointments changed as time went by. The first was electric. Hundreds of us were hauled in together. Faces were familiar, our lawyers were buzzing and OWS still existed as an active movement. This was November 2011. Most of us just received the charges. This had always been a mystery since many of us had received multiple counts and none of us new the legal code very well. A simple misreading could turn an elementary disorderly conduct charge into a conspiracy to riot felony. Once we knew the charges the dealing could begin.

After the next court date a bunch of people, including my partner, had their charges dismissed. This was mostly likely done because they were processed outside of Central Booking which almost guaranteed problems with faulty paperwork. We joked that these were the informers. Clearly the DA was cutting its losses with the mass arrest since they offered the rest of us ACD’s — Acquittal Contemplating Dismissal — an agreement in which neither side admits guilt and the record of the arrestee would be closed after 6 months. With the movement still showing signs of life, full legal representation and a good support network, I turned down the ACD offer and trudged along into the long game of the legal system.

Our cases were then consolidated — ten of us were placed together on the same case with the same court dates. When this consolidation was completed in the middle of 2012, OWS had died down and the vigor of our courtroom resistance with it. Our original 700 had been whittled down to around 100 or so. I don’t blame my co-defendants for taking the ACDs. Going through this process was difficult; it was annoying, it was frustrating, and it was de-humanizing being herded around by court officers, facing the unknown during each visit to court and explaining and re-explaining why you refused to give in to friends and family.

The missing ingredient throughout was some outreach from OWS itself. There was no support group set up by the movement despite the fact that they seemed to have a committee for everything. All of the legal work was outsourced to the NLG who did a fantastic job of representing us in court, but were not equipped to build larger structures of court support. This detachment from movement structures is, in part, responsible for the quick dwindling of the courtroom resistance.

By the time. I got to the end, in April of 2013, there were only a few of us left standing. Only four of the ten defendants who had been consolidated into my case still remained. However, ironically, it was the length of the trials that ultimately allowed us to escape prosecution. Our ever competent legal team argued that the DA had violated our right to a speedy trial by stretching out the court dates and never providing evidence, including the arresting officers, in court. Our case essentially “timed out” in court as an angry judge set April 2 as a final date for the DA. When they couldn’t deliver, we were off the hook.

Ultimately, the whole process cost me five vacation days and my students a bunch of literacy and math lessons delivered by substitute instructors who they badgered into submission. I won. However this left me wondering: What were the spoils of my victory? OWS has been defeated. A new more cynical version of Obama-mania has emerged. And the post-2008 upswing of radicalism seems to have subsided.

On the other hand, in a small way, my case demonstrates the need to resist. It shows that protest movements can successfully use institutional resources to defend themselves. That we can make the government pay a price by dragging them through court when they illegally use state power.

These victories are far from the lofty dreams that spurred us to action during the opening moments of OWS, but we always knew that the struggle for a better society would itself be a long game. As Frederick Douglass reminds us, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” We refused to quietly submit to the illegal arrest of protesters. Winning the Brooklyn Bridge case was a tiny blow for the freedom that Douglass and many others so justly struggle for.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.