NEW YORK -- Gbenga Akinnagbe went on trial Thursday. The actor who played Chris Partlow on HBO's "The Wire" wasn't in a Brooklyn courtroom for any of the crimes his character on the TV drama committed (murder, murder and more murder). Instead, Akinnagbe and three other men are accused of blocking a sidewalk.
The case, which they took to trial despite a prosecution offer of a conditional dismissal, is bigger than the charge suggests, according to the defense. The defendants are putting the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy, and tolerance for free speech, up for judgment.
Akinnagbe, a Nigerian American with an easy smile and a dedication to social issues, has already been to court seven times for pre-trial issues by his count. Fifteen months have passed since Nov. 1, 2011, when he and more than a dozen others were arrested during a stop-and-frisk protest in front of the police 73rd Precinct house.
Along the way, Akinnagbe said, his agents have gotten used to explaining to directors that their client can't shoot on a particular day because he has court date. Not of the Lindsay Lohan variety. And he's gotten used to flying back from Los Angeles, or Miami (where he was filming for the USA Network drama "Graceland,") to appear in the decidedly unglamorous Kings Criminal Court. At least his girlfriend was there on Thursday, as a sort of Valentine's Day present.
"It's taken a year and a half because they basically want to wear us out and take a deal," Akinnagbe said of the Brooklyn district attorney. "Because they can. They have the system on their side."
Defendants in this case and in many others that originated around the same time, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, have often described a feeling of legal limbo. Free speech advocates claim the NYPD seems more interested in arresting demonstrators, and squelching their protests, than in convicting them.
On Thursday, Akinnagbe and his lawyers got their first crack back at "the system." Police Officer John Blanco took the witness stand to describe why he arrested Akinnagbe's fellow defendant, the Rev. Luis Barrios, for failing to disperse in front of the precinct house.
Police videotape played as evidence during Blanco's testimony exemplifies the bizarre pantomime quality the entire case has taken. The demonstrators, warned that they must disperse, seem perfectly content to get arrested. The NYPD seemed perfectly content to arrest them. Nobody else was around.
All these months later, however, Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Roger Yu proclaimed in court that the demonstrators, "raising their voices, beating their drums," obstructed a pathway into the police precinct house between two police barriers. For the public, he said, the defendants' "intentional act created annoyance."
Nevermind that Blanco testified that he saw no civilians actually trying to enter the building. Or that members of the public interested in reporting crimes may have been less discouraged by the protest than by the NYPD's apparent practice of downgrading major crimes.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Martin Stolar was able to extract from Blanco, over the prosecutor's objections, that he has stop-and-frisked a number of New Yorkers as part of his work with an NYPD high-crime task force. In 2011, the year of the protest, 73rd Precinct officers stopped 25,167 New Yorkers. Ninety-eight percent of them were black or Latino.
Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave his final state of the city address, defending the stop-and-frisk policy and stating that it will stay in force for "the next 320 days" -- as long as he remains in office. Many of the candidates vying to replace him have pledged to reform the practice.
The trial stopped on Thursday without a conclusion. It will resume on Feb. 27 and is expected to take at least two more days. Attorneys for the defendants said they hope all the charges will be dismissed, as they were in another case from the same protest. The judge in that case found that the precinct entrance was not, after all, blocked.
"It is a classic petition your government for redress of grievances," Stolar said in his opening statement for the defense. He argued that the demonstrators chose a perfectly logical place for it -- the precinct house where those grievances began.