On Halloween night, as children were just beginning to wander neighborhood streets in search of treats, a handful of people crowded into a small conference room at the south DeKalb County offices of the Davis Bozeman Law Firm. Notebooks handy, the assemblage intently studied a series of jittery images flashing across a flat-screen television: dozens of uniformed police officers in riot gear joking and jostling as they fall into a loose column and begin moving under bright lights through the barricades they had erected earlier in the day to corral protesters.
“That’s the 11th Circuit building,” said one viewer, identifying the staging ground for the police sweep of the Occupy Atlanta encampment in Woodruff Park last fall. Slowly, the column of officers wends its way beneath glaring lights and into the park to a muddled soundtrack of shouts, drumming and the beat of helicopter blades.
“The whole world is watching!” shout onlookers, channeling their political forebears protesting outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Unlike that chaotic street battle, the Atlanta officers are methodical as they stride up behind a circle of seated protesters, place them in plastic handcuffs and begin carrying them off to jail.
Ultimately, 52 people, including Operation Rainbow PUSH Coalition Regional Director Joe Beasley and state Senator Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, would be arrested. All have been charged with violating a municipal code ordinance prohibiting anyone from remaining in a city park between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. If convicted, each defendant could face six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.
The video watched on Halloween by attorneys Mawuli Davis, David Markus, Brian Spears and Jennifer Watts represented a small triumph for the lawyers: Up until a few days earlier, the Atlanta Police Department had maintained that any recordings made by the cameras several officers were seen using during the arrests had been erased.
APD disgorged the videos only in response to a motion to have the charges against all 52 arrestees dismissed due to the destruction of potentially exculpatory evidence.
Davis and the others are among more than two-dozen attorneys volunteering representation to more than 70 total defendants charged in Occupy-related arrests. The Occupy Atlanta Legal Team has contributed about 1,700 pro bono hours, according to Davis’ office.
He filed the motion to dismiss that finally pried the video evidence loose. Spears has filed two more motions challenging the defendants’ arrests on constitutional grounds, while Atlanta lawyer Alex Susor and McDonough solo Ella Hughes are among the lawyers who have submitted other pleadings.
A separate challenge to Atlanta’s ordinance, filed last November in federal court by Atlanta general practitioner Jeffrey Filipovits and Ralph Goldberg of Decatur’s Goldberg & Cuvillier, was dismissed in August by U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Baverman. That order is on appeal.
The defense team was heartened last month when the city dismissed charges against three student journalists who had been swept up in the Nov. 5 sweep and charged with obstructing traffic.
They had been represented by Sandra Michaels, an attorney who also lobbies for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “I was hanging with some of the Occupy Atlanta folks before [the eviction from the park],” said Michaels, “and I was always going to represent someone with them.”
While Michaels’ clients are no longer in the mix, the first of two hearings on the motions filed by the remaining defendants will be held Nov. 16 before Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Crystal Gaines.
She is gearing up for a weeklong December trial that will strain the seating capacity of her courtroom and require dozens of Atlanta police officers to be on call and available to testify.
At a hearing in early October, Gaines noted that her courtroom, the largest in the Municipal Court building, would still be too small for the dozens of defendants, lawyers and police officers—as many as 53, said Assistant Solicitor Drew Taylor—who might be called to testify.
Add the spectators and media, Gaines said, and even the provision of an extra courtroom to which the proceedings are supplied via video-feed—such as was set up for media and overflow seating during the trial of Fulton County Courthouse killer Brian Nichols—may not be sufficient.
The array of legal firepower on the defense side is not reflected across the aisle. Atlanta Solicitor Raines Carter said he has assigned Taylor to handle the Occupy cases full-time, along with two other assistant solicitors to assist as needed.
“The only thing I can compare it to is way back in 1988, when the city of Atlanta hosted the Democratic National Convention, and they had the mass arrests of the Operation Rescue protesters,” Carter said.
The City of Atlanta Law Department is also involved. Deputy City Attorney Eric Richardson said he and Senior Assistant Attorney Amber Robinson have helped draft responses and coordinate discovery in response to multiple subpoenas served on the office of Mayor Kasim Reed and APD.
The city is also defending the federal case, he added.
As with many of the Occupy encampments that sprang up around the country after Occupy Wall Street demonstrators moved into New York’s Zucotti Park in September 2011, attorneys began keeping an eye on developments well before any official efforts to dismantle the protest gatherings were launched.
In Atlanta, Reed expressed concern about the potential for crime and damage to the park when Occupy protesters pitched their tents in early October. But he issued two executive orders suspending the 11 p.m. park curfew through Nov. 7.
On Oct. 25, he rescinded that order with another saying the protesters “have not adhered to fire safety laws and directives critical to public safety” and had “created a substantial and immediate public safety risk.”
Juliana Grant, who is not a lawyer but serves on Occupy Atlanta’s legal committee and is affiliated with the National Lawyers Guild, said the call for legal help came even before the protesters entered the park.
Grant contacted the Lawyers Guild, Lambda Legal and other civil right organizations, and word spread through the legal community. She said that the more than 30 lawyers have assisted Occupy in either defending the protesters or challenging the city’s ordinances.
Markus said he saw the message on the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers listserv, and Filipovits said he, too, found a message on a Listserv he declined to identify.
“Someone sent out an SOS and said some of the protesters might be arrested,” Filipovits said. “I didn’t really know anything about Occupy, but some of the responses made me think some of these people might need help.”
Filiipovits said he was disturbed by some comments regarding the protesters.
“Some were really hostile,” he said. “They were kind of the typical responses you hear sometimes; it was a few people, but it was enough to piss me off and make me think, ‘If this how these people are going be regarded, I’m getting involved.’ I was shocked to hear some defense attorneys make these kinds of comments.”
Filipovits said he attended some the earliest meetings of the legal team.
“My goal at the first meeting was to help them apply for a festival permit. I wanted to prevent a mass arrest. So I sat down with the city code and found out that even with a permit you could not be in that park overnight. I thought, ‘These guys have a valid message, why in the world should the government be able to shut down a public forum?’”
“One of the other reasons I got involved is that I wanted to see how these things happened,” Filipovits added. “I’d been reading about these mass arrests. I knew guys like [retired Atlanta attorney] Brooks Franklin and Brian Spears were involved. I respect those guys a lot and looked forward to working with them. So it’s been an educational experience, too.”
Davis said he was among those monitoring the encampment prior to its eviction and was on hand the night of the arrests.
“I went down just because I was interested in the fact that there were young people engaged in protesting and willing to really challenge the power structure and status quo,” he said.
“I began meeting some of the activists. I had prior relationships with some from organizing around other issues: police brutality, discrimination, education. They were preparing for the possibility of arrests, and I told them our firm would do whatever we could, and I would organize as many lawyers as I could.”
Davis and Atlanta solo Marcia Fuller observed the arrests, Davis calling the action an “incredible show of police power.
“We started sending out texts saying, ‘We’re going to need some support tomorrow morning.’ We were hoping we could go over and get them out that night on signature bonds, but that didn’t happen this time. They required everybody to show up for court the next morning,” Davis added, noting that 23 attorneys showed up to represent the protesters.
The Lawyers Guild, whose Mass Defense Committee has been working with Occupy encampments since the movement began, also put out the word, although Davis said many lawyers “became involved just based on phone calls and texts, who were not involved in organizations like the NLG.”
Many of the attorneys consulted for this story cited Spears, a veteran civil rights attorney and member of the NLG’s Police Accountability Project, for doing much of the heavy lifting as the cases have proceeded.
“I got involved after the initial arrests,” said Spears. “I knew that, from the standpoint of the underlying political issues combining with the issue of mass arrests, it was going to be important to weigh in.”
“In many cities, our [NLG] members are involved in providing defense to those arrested. Once we started having the arrests, we developed an approach we’ve used in every city.”
“In part,” he said, “it involves the ability to use parks throughout the night to conduct vigils. The Occupy protest was, in a sense, a 24-hour vigil, and there’s no better place to hold a vigil that protests a public policy issue than in a public park.”
“Is there a curfew on the First Amendment?” Spears asked. “In my opinion, there is not.”
That issue, he said, is just as important as the economic issues the Occupy protests centered on, particularly in Atlanta.
“Part of the draw of Atlanta is its role as a civil rights arena,” said Spears. “Sure, these protesters got arrested, but there was a substantial struggle for civil rights here. It’s important to our history.”
Atlanta solo Musta Ghanayem, who has signed on to represent Fort, said he welcomed the chance to work alongside attorneys like Spears, Davis and Susor.
“These are Class A attorneys,” Ghanayem said. “If I dove into the deep end, they dove into the middle of the ocean. There’s a lot of camaraderie among us.”
“The thing people don’t understand is that the first part of the Occupy arrest was very public,” said Davis. “Then came the hard work of setting aside time to write motions, to attend hearings. A lot of the younger lawyers are seeing the level of commitment these more seasoned attorneys have for this cause. People are receiving an education in politics, in organization. We’ve had to meet with the protesters in mass meetings, so … attorneys have had to check their egos at the door, to listen to people who have a very specific agenda. They don’t want to look for a technicality; they want to make sure their voice is heard. It’s been an inspiring experience for most of the attorneys who have remained engaged.”
Davis said he and his colleagues are inspired by attorneys such as Donald Lee Hollowell and C.B. King, who represented civil rights demonstrators decades ago.
“They set the bar for the activist attorneys,” he said. “I see the Occupy movement as an extension of that mission.”