WASHINGTON -- Remember the "Free Franklin" protesters arrested in November for their homelessness demonstration inside the vacant Franklin School building in downtown D.C.?
The six whose cases went to trial were found guilty of unlawfully entering a vacant building on Wednesday after a three-day trial in the D.C. Superior Court.
A spokesman for the protesters, Ray Valentine, told The Huffington Post that "it's likely there's going to be an appeal," but that the defendants "haven't made a decision yet."
Valentine also said that the demonstrators still believe the Franklin School building should be "reopened and put to public use. We think it's unacceptable for the city to sell it off."
The Franklin School is a city-owned former men's homeless shelter at 13th and K streets NW that has been empty for more than three years. Protesters appeared to coalesce around the idea of the building becoming a homeless shelter once again, but that idea had its detractors.
The demonstrators released a statement Wednesday saying that their guilty verdicts, and five-day suspended sentences, are "justice denied":
Justice Denied for ‘Free Franklin’ Defendants and DC’s Homeless
Six Defendants Found Guilty of Unlawful Entry Charge for Protesting Lack of Housing for City’s Homeless
WASHINGTON, DC – Today, after a 3 day trial in DC Superior Court, a jury found six housing activists guilty of unlawful entry. The ‘Free Franklin six’ were arrested last November as part of an occupation of the vacant, publicly owned Franklin School building at 13th and K Streets NW. The defendants were part of a larger group that attempted to re-open the Franklin building to raise awareness of the need for housing and other services for the city’s homeless and underserved residents. The activists were promoting the idea that public resources would be better utilized if controlled directly by the community and not left abandoned or sold to the highest bidder by city officials.
Despite the guilty verdict, in sentencing Judge Broderick showed sympathy for the defendants by giving them only 5 days in jail suspended with three months unsupervised probation that can be cut in half. When the Prosecution asked that the defendants be sentenced to community service, the Judge responded that they do community service all the time.
"The real crime here is the mismanagement of public resources like Franklin and the lack of services for DC’s homeless,” says defendant and DC resident Rosa Lozano. “This trial was a waste of taxpayer resources that could be better spent on putting abandoned buildings like Franklin to use to serve the real needs of the greater DC community.”
During the trial, the defendants did not deny that they were in Franklin School but argued that they were sequestered and arrested without proper legal authorization. In the testimony of two of the six defendants and remarks from another who represented himself, they argued that they had a right to be in the Franklin building on November 19th, 2011 because it rightfully belongs to the people of DC. However, Judge Broderick did not allow crucial aspects of the defense’s case that would have allowed the jury to understand why the defendants should be acquitted. In these circumstances, the jury returned a guilty verdict against all six defendants.
“The prosecution worked hard to keep the politics out of this case and prevent any mention of the shameful history of this building and others like it,” explained supporter Ray Valentine. “They clearly knew that they couldn’t win that argument—that no jury of DC residents, would support the city’s failure to use public property to address community needs.”
Community groups have been fighting for the city to re-open the Franklin Shelter that was illegally closed by then Mayor Fenty in 2008, but DC officials have ignored all demands thus far, and instead have been trying to sell the building to a private developer.
"I participated in this action because the people of this city can't count on the DC government to be honest with public resources,” says defendant and DC resident Jesse Shultz who represented himself ‘pro se’ in the trial. “Honestly, I think we need to put the city council and mayor on trial for policies that result in human rights abuses by depriving homeless people of shelter, especially in the freezing winter months as well as on these scorching hot summer days.”
The city is currently facing a growing crisis of homelessness (currently over 6,500 homeless individuals) and lack of affordable housing, but the city continues to close shelters and cut funds for needed services, including $7 million cut from homeless services in next year’s budget.
Nonviolent direct action tactics like those employed in the Franklin occupation have been used effectively on numerous occasions in the district. Franklin first became a shelter in 2002 through an occupation by housing activists and was re-opened again in 2003 due to pressure from a second occupation. It remained an emergency shelter for the homeless until 2008. Other shelters have also opened as a result of community action.
According to Attorney Mark Goldstone who was the attorney advisor for Mr. Schultz, “throughout their case, the defendants were able to establish that in DC, historically, the only way to get a shelter opened is through direct action, but bureaucratic processes continue to fail the citizens of DC.”