12/14/2011 09:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is That All There Is? The Occupy Movement

The last possible deed is that which defines perception itself, an invisible golden cord that connects us: illegal dancing in the courthouse corridors." (Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z. Autonomedia, 1991)

Ben West provides this entry on New York's criminal justice system in relation to the Occupy movement. The politics of sedition take an interesting turn as criminal courts overflow with relatively superflous cases, diverting resources from a system that can otherwise produce injustice at even greater rates. The cost of hard time is more for the many being met by the few.

Occupy Criminal Court

It is hard to miss the new presence in the criminal court building at 100 Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. The recent mass arrests of Occupy Wall Street protesters have brought hundreds of young, mostly white, deeply committed activists into the criminal justice system. The occupiers have set up an encampment on Centre Street, where they keep food and medical supplies to provide succor to their comrades as they are released from jail. I support Occupy Wall Street, but as a public defender I view the occupiers as tourists in the criminal justice system, a sideshow to the real injustices perpetrated daily against mostly black and Latino New Yorkers.

I am familiar with the arrest to arraignment process, and although I have never been arrested, I can attest that it is a brave act to volunteer to be arrested in New York City. The occupiers engaging in civil disobedience are signing up for about 24 hours of extremely unpleasant conditions. I see the pride in their faces when they are released.

But I wonder how attuned they are to the terrible damage being done inside of 100 Centre Street 365 days a year. As they walk out the door with their badge of honor and are cheered and fed donated food by their waiting supporters, what do they make of the long line of black
and Latino men and women waiting to be let into the building? Do they consider that the concentrated, militarized police action that has landed on their heads recently is an everyday reality for black and Latino communities in New York City?

The occupiers are not the only new kids in town. A fresh batch of Assistant District Attorneys has just been released into the courtrooms. They too are young, mostly white, and committed to their work. Like the occupiers, they seem largely unconcerned and unaware of the crisis of racism and oppression in our courts. I met one recently who told me he is eager to prosecute the occupiers because they offer him the chance to quickly gain trial experience on cases that have no real importance. My first response was to defend the importance of civil disobedience and of the First Amendment. But then I changed tack: I now encourage all new DAs (baby DAs, in our parlance) to seek their trial experience at the expense of the occupiers rather than extracting it from the backs of my indigent black and Latino clients. In this way, as unwitting cannon fodder in a battle they may not fully understand, the occupiers have the opportunity to achieve some tangible justice.

I was radicalized by spending time in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia and New York City. Our courtrooms are light boxes that illuminate the insidious, virulent racism and powerful mechanisms of oppression inherent in our American way of life. If many of these mechanisms are difficult to identify in society at large, they are on open display for anyone who walks into a courtroom packed with indigent people of color accused of crimes. I hope the occupiers are
radicalized by their contacts with the system. When they share stories in the pens with their fellow arrestees waiting to see a judge, I hope they do more listening than talking. I hope that they connect with the sufferings of the people they meet in jail and that they take the stories they hear, trumpet them on the people's microphone and incorporate them into their growing movement. I even hope to see some of the baby DAs join the struggle -- there is so much they could do to help -- but I will not hold my breath.

Benjamin J. West
Public Defender
New York City