Free Franklin homeless advocates found guilty, undeterred
|July 23, 2012||Posted by Anne Meador under News|
Six activists from Free Franklin DC were found guilty of unlawful entry at Franklin School, which they occupied during a protest in November 2011. Undeterred, they vow to fight on. Ann Meador reports.Six activists charged with unlawful entry into the Franklin School on 13th Street NW last November were found guilty by a jury in D.C. Superior Court on July 12. They were part of a political protest by the organization Free Franklin DC that had taken place on November 19, 2011. The protest had been intended to draw attention to the District’s decision in 2008 to close the homeless shelter that had formerly been housed in the school and leave it vacant.
The group of protesters had ascended to the roof of the building and unfurled a large black banner saying, “Property Under Community Control.” With a supportive crowd gathered on the street below, police arrested the protesters after a stand-off lasting several hours.
Defendants and their supporters had sought to portray their action in the context of what they considered the District’s lack of responsiveness to residents’ wishes for Franklin School. They also wanted to raise awareness of problems such as homelessness and shortage of low-income housing, which have only risen with austerity measures undertaken by the District. Yet Judge Patricia Broderick seemed determined not to allow the trial to become a political platform in any way. “This is not a trial by political process,” she declared.
The defendants did not dispute that they entered the building on November 19, but the charge required that government meet a high burden of proof. In an unusual tactic, the defense challenged the actual ownership of the building, contending that it belonged to the community, not to the District government, and therefore the community was entitled to determine how it should best be used.
Defense counsel Kanita Williams said that the defendants entered with the good faith belief that they were not committing an illegal act. She repeatedly stressed that they entered through an open door, bringing with them cleaning supplies in order to “restore” the building. Defendant Jesse Schultz said, “We had reason to believe that we were welcome in the Franklin Shelter.”
Broderick, however, denied defendants recourse on legal grounds to most of the good faith defense, which would have allowed testimony about the past contentious struggle with District government over the building’s usage. She was sensitive to outside influence on the jury, such as seeing the Free Franklin DC t-shirts worn by some audience members.
The strategy of government prosecutor Adam Dinnell was to keep the case a simple matter of unlawful entry. In his opening statement to the jury, he said, “This case is about property rights, and the rights of an owner to control whether they want people on their property or not.” The prosecution also sought to keep political and social issues from entering into play. In a statement released after trial, Free Franklin DC supporter Ray Valentine said the government “worked hard to prevent any mention of the shameful history of this building and others like it.”
Three government witnesses testified that the legal property owner is the District government. They also gave testimony contradicting the defense’s assertion that the protesters had entered freely. “If they just walked through an open door, why did it take the police three hours to get in?” Dinnell asked, referring to a request for the fire department’s aid. He contested the defendants’ presumption of authority, saying that their decision to act “doesn’t trump the decisions of elected officials. It didn’t entitle them to take over the building.”
Broderick sentenced the defendants to 5 days in jail, suspended, 3 months unsupervised probation and a $50 fine. In addition to the suspended sentence and probation, Broderick instructed the defendants to stay away from the Franklin School when handing down the light sentence. When the prosecution stated that the sentence lacked a requirement of community service, Broderick remarked, “Most of what they do is [already] community service.”
Schultz had chosen to act as his own attorney during the proceedings because “I felt there was a need for someone to introduce things a lawyer can’t without risking their bar card.”
“For me,” he said, ”the verdict shows that the public still has to follow the system no matter how corrupt the system has become, no matter how much damage. The judicial system is a part of it. A lot of normal people aren’t ready to rebel yet. Hopefully that will change.”
Free Franklin DC community member Anna Duncan was not pleased with the verdict, but pointed out that publicity was positive. “I think it’s good that the defendants had the opportunity to make a case in front of the jury and re-state demands [to] bring more attention to the issue,” she said. Duncan added that, “the defendants showed throughout the trial that the Franklin building belongs to the people, and the community should be the one who decides what to do with it.”
Defendant Rosa Lozano, who testified during trial said, “The real crime here is the mismanagement of public resources like Franklin and the lack of services for D.C.’s homeless.”
The organization seems determined to keep organizing and challenging District officials to address the future of the Franklin School. “We’ll continue to fight to get public property used to meet community needs,” said Duncan.
Schultz emphasized that Franklin School represented a larger cause. “Franklin is an essential piece in a battle between people and money. Look where it’s located, on K Street, where money and politics intersect.”
The defendants intend to appeal their sentence.