An organization that sprouted in 1968 to defend Vietnam War protesters who had taken over Columbia University is offering free initial legal representation—regardless of financial need—to the hundreds of activists netted in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
“This is the First Amendment come alive,” said Wylie M. Stecklow, a Manhattan civil rights attorney working with the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Committee. “Nobody is in this for a fee.”
Mr. Stecklow did not rule out the possibility of seeking compensation down the road, especially if civil damages are sought.
“But it is such a far removed consideration that it is not a consideration at this point,” he added.
Attorneys associated with the mass defense committee, some of them observing the demonstrations wearing distinctive green hats and providing protesters with a number to call if they do get arrested, say their clients will not hesitate to insist on trials.
“If the district attorney doesn’t want to work this out, the clients have choices, and one of the choices is to stand on the fact that they are innocent and were wrongfully arrested and insist on a trial,” said Martin R. Stolar, an attorney in Manhattan and former president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “I have bunches of lawyers who are willing to take these cases to trial, but it depends on what the clients want to do.”
Mr. Stolar said he and three other attorneys with the defense committee met with two members of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.’s team yesterday afternoon and asked for dismissals.
“They listened to what we had to say, were appreciative of the information we conveyed and said they would talk it over with the head of the trial division and Mr. Vance and get back to us,” Mr. Stolar said.
“Every arrest that comes into the D.A.’s office is assessed individually, and charging decisions are based on the evidence and circumstances unique to each case and defendant,” said Erin Duggan, Mr. Vance’s communications director.
Roughly 500 people arrested in Manhattan are facing mostly misdemeanor and violation charges, according to the district attorney’s office.
Five hundred trials would clearly burden a borough where, according to the Office of Court Administration, jury trials for the first eight months of this year are up 50 percent to 60 and bench trials are up 45 percent to 138 in Criminal Court.
“Anytime there are mass arrests, it will strain the system,” acknowledged David Bookstaver, spokesman for the OCA. “However, we have an enormous amount of experience in New York City dealing with these type of situations. We know how to do it and folks always get their day in court. If it places a burden on the judges, it is one that they have always successfully overcome.”
The court system has on occasion temporarily reassigned judges to handle a suddenly increased caseload. Mr. Bookstaver said he could not speculate on what may occur with the Occupy Wall Street arrests.
One of those facing charges and has had legal counsel is Jason Ahmadi who, despite being arrested twice since the protests began, was demonstrating yesterday at Zuccotti Park on Broadway.
Mr. Ahmadi said he was arrested once for chalking the sidewalk with a Ghandi quote—”The world has enough for everybody’s need but not enough for everybody’s greed”—and then for disorderly conduct. He said he intends to fight the charges when he appears in court with his attorney, Mr. Stecklow of the Lawyers Guild.
“I feel like I didn’t do anything wrong, so I don’t want to pay any fines,” he said.
Gideon O. Oliver, a defense and civil rights attorney in Manhattan and member of the executive committee of the city chapter of the guild, said the volunteer attorneys assisting the defense committee are generally sympathetic to the cause of the protesters, although the organization itself has not taken a political position.
“Generally, it is safe to say that those of us who do this work believe in the First Amendment and recognize the need to protect it,” Mr. Oliver said.
He said he is hopeful the charges will be dismissed.
“If Vance’s office makes a determination, as [former District Attorney Robert M.] Morgenthau did a number of times, that the right thing to do here is to dismiss the cases outright, that would be great,” Mr. Oliver said. “If not and people want to fight, the guild is here to represent them as far as they want to take it.”
The defense committee reports that it enlisted 600 lawyers to support individuals arrested in protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention, obtaining dismissals in about 90 percent of the cases.
The Lawyers Guild is seeking donations to cover overhead costs, taxi fares, and the green hats distributed to its observers.