NEW YORK — Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York shifted their fight from the streets to the court Thursday, when dozens of people arrested while marching rejected a deal for them to avoid trial.
The first batch of 78 protesters from among hundreds arrested for disorder over the last six weeks filed into New York State court, nearly all of them telling a judge that they were innocent and demanding a jury trial to clear their names.
Prosecutors had offered a deal in which protesters would see charges dismissed provided they kept out of trouble for six months. The mass refusal raised the prospect of protesters clogging up a court system that will be obliged to provide each defendant with a trial lasting approximately a day.
“There’s a general push,” said Joshua Lewis, 23, after rejecting the deal, known in legal terms as an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, or ACD.
“They were offering ACDs and the majority seems to be moving (to reject). I rejected it,” he said. “I’m entirely not guilty.”
Like the others processed Thursday, Lewis was arrested on September 24 during a march in Manhattan’s Union Square area.
Many more have been arrested in other incidents since then, with 16 people detained on Thursday outside the headquarters of Goldman Sachs in the Financial District, the New York Police Department said.
In the biggest incident, hundreds of people were arrested during a march in October across the Brooklyn Bridge. They have not yet entered the court system.
Protesters in court said their refusal to take the deal was a matter of principle.
Victoria Sobel, 21, said she “pleaded not guilty because we are not guilty… It’s about personal accountability.”
And Martin Stolar, a lawyer representing about 15 protesters, said pushing the cases to trial showed that prosecutors could not intimidate the mostly young activists.
“To force someone to take an ACD in a case where they are factually innocent is unjust,” he said. “They thought they were on a legitimate, lawful protest march.”
Another lawyer representing more than a dozen protesters, David Rankin, said “a lot of people believe they did nothing wrong and they deserve a day in court.”
Both the lawyers said that from their groups only two people accepted the ACD deal.
The protesters are charged mostly with disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. Trials could start as early as January 9.
Anyone found guilty faces a maximum of 15 days behind bars, although the sentence would typically be no more than community service or a fine, lawyers said.
The surge in the courts comes as the Occupy Wall Street movement faces growing challenges.
In Oakland, California, a small group of protesters turned violent, throwing rocks and bottles at police, who responded with tear gas.
And in New York, where the movement began as a demonstration against government bailouts of Wall Street giants, pressure is building for an end to the protest tent camp occupying a downtown square.
On Wednesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the camp’s effect on local businesses was becoming a problem. “I am very concerned about the other people’s rights, as well as the protesters,” he said.
The protest camp has also been marred by reports of unsavory behavior, including protesters urinating in the streets, theft and sexual abuse.
New York media reported that a man had been arrested for allegedly groping a woman at the park and was suspected in other incidents.
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