Eight Occupy Wall Street protesters accused of trespassing on the property of a New York church in December went on trial Monday.
The courtroom was packed and an overflow of Occupy supporters spilled out into the hall as a Manhattan judge heard the testimony of New York City police officers who arrested protesters in a vacant lot on December 17.
Legal representatives for Trinity Church, a historic New York City institution that is also a big force in Manhattan real estate, were also in court.
Attorneys for the defendants questioned the orders received by officers to make arrests, whether they noticed “open to the public” signs posted around the property and whether Trinity Church had the authority to order police to clear the area of demonstrators.
Trinity Church has said it is “not seeking retribution or punishment as a result of the OWS actions of December 17 at Duarte Square”.
In a statement posted to the church’s website Rector James Cooper claimed that Trinity had requested the district attorney seek “non-criminal dispositions without fines or incarceration be granted to all”.
“Trinity has welcomed and continues to welcome OWS members, like all members of its community, to its facilities in the Wall Street area,” he said.
Trinity provided a variety of services to Occupy protesters in the initial months of the movement, but when the movement was ousted from its original encampment in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on November 17 the relationship became strained.
The morning after the eviction protesters marched to a nearby lot believed to be owned by Trinity Church. A hole was cut in the fence surrounding the property as number of protesters entered and about 20 were arrested. A month later, on December 17, Occupy protesters again attempted to move into the space, using a ladder to gain access to the lot. Dozens were arrested.
Most of those arrested accepted a variety of plea deals. The remaining eight protesters still facing charges, who opted to take their case to trial, include prominent episcopalian priest George Packard and Jack Boyle, a 57-year-old man who is HIV-positive.
For the last 23 days Boyle has refused to take his medication, for the last 19 he has not eaten. As he waited to take his seat in the courtroom Monday morning Boyle said he felt “weak”.
Boyle hopes that his actions will draw attention to the case and the Occupy movement. Specifically, he has called upon Trinity Church to drop all charges against his fellow defendants and demanded an apology from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg over his treatment of the protesters over the last 10 months.
Packard had a blueprint in his pocket when he jumped climbed a ladder into the park that day. It laid out plans for the space that included a medical clinic, a food station and more.
Speaking outside the countroom, Packard said he believes the arrests and the trial have disturbing implications for the faith he serves.
“I’m concerned that the church I love has changed around me,” Packard said. It seems, Packard suggested, “Relevant witness has become a polite conversation piece.”