Protesters facing three misdemeanor charges after their arrests at the Oakland Port anti-war demonstration last April were cleared of disturbing the peace charges Friday after an Alameda County Superior Court judge told the District Attorney’s office there wasn’t sufficient evidence to sustain the charge.
It was a short-lived victory for the 25 defendants and their attorneys, for prosecutors promptly substituted a new charge of creating a public nuisance.
Most of the hearing was consumed by the defense, disputing the new charge—which defense attorney Bobbi Stein called “vindictive.”
“They could have [filed the charge] originally and they didn’t,” Stein said. “They did it because they got one dropped.”
Deputy District Attorneys Stuart Hing and Julie Dunger defended the public nuisance charge, saying it was added after a new investigation by the prosecution.
Defense attorneys, who had originally asked a judge in October to dismiss all charges, expressed frustration after the judge upheld the new charge and sustained the other two charges—failure to disperse and interfering with a business.
The defense also gave vent during the hearing to allegations that the DA’s office hadn’t provided written discovery and hadn’t cooperated in determining how to pay for copies for the indigent defendants.
“It’s ridiculous that we’ve had to wait in line for three months to get the discovery,” said Elizabeth Grossman, another of the defense attorneys. “How are we supposed to discuss motions without discovery?”
The protesters and their supporters continued to demand that all charges be dropped in a case they say highlights the Oakland Police department’s record of abuse and corruption. The case has brought renewed attention to a department already mired in “The Riders” case, where OPD officers have been accused of using excessive force and making false arrests in West Oakland.
Several participants were injured during the April protest when police fired weapons including wooden dowels, lead-filled beanbags and rubber bullets.
Protesters say that even though the weapons are labeled non-lethal, police misused the equipment, firing directly at demonstrators instead of deflecting rounds off the pavement and disregarding warnings on the equipment that said direct hits could be lethal.
Willow Rosenthal, a protester who was hit but not arrested, attended a rally outside the courthouse before the hearing, holding a sign that read “Victim of the Patriot Act” and standing with her pant leg rolled up to display a large scar covering most of her right calf.
Rosenthal said she doesn’t know what hit her, but the injury left her in debilitating pain for a month. She has undergone two surgeries—including a skin graft—and says she still suffers pain in her knee and ankle.
She is one of the group of protesters who filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Oakland in June, claiming infringements of their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association.
Kate Sassoon, a UC Berkeley student studying Theater and Biological Sciences, was among those arrested at the April rally. She and her two housemates were apprehended as they backed away when police started firing. Because they had linked arms, she said, they were unable to escape when motorcycle police pursued them, another tactic the protesters are calling abusive.
“Before we knew if we were tackled to the ground and held face down,” said Sassoon, who spent 15 hours behind bars before her release.
Sassoon says she won’t pay the fines she and her fellow defendants expect if they are convicted.
“I’m being prosecuted on charges that are on the books to deter people from using their civil liberties,” she said.
Stein, Sassoon’s lawyer, said she thought the whole case was ridiculous and that most of those on the defense side thought Oakland Police were pressing charges to divert attention away from their own conduct.
“It’s absurd that Alameda County is prosecuting these cases,” said Stein. “If this is the county’s attempt to save face, I think it’s a weak one.”
A new hearing is now set for Jan. 9, where defense attorneys again plan to challenge the charges.