Capitol Hill Times Article…

7 Mar

From protester to prisoner: Occupy Seattle members face legal trouble after arrests

By Rod Lotter
– The Capitol Hill Times –

On the morning of Nov. 28, Occupy Seattle member Martin Chapman walked into the Capitol Rotunda in Olympia as a protester. Hours later, he left as a prisoner.

Chapman was one of about 3,000 protesters to show up that day to rally against a proposed $2 billion cut to the Washington State budget. The activists refused to leave at the 5:30 p.m. closing time and began to be arrested by state troopers around 7 p.m. By the end of the night, Chapman and four others were taken into custody. About 30 more were given trespassing warnings and three people were tazed by officers.

“I didn’t intend on being arrested that night,” Chapman said. “I came to the protest as an observer. I was taking notes, brought a video camera and was just serving as a witness to the civil disobedience that was being practiced at the Capitol.”

Chapman said he was arrested despite being an observer, not a participant, in the sit-in at the rotunda.

“I was asked by the police whether I was a legal or illegal resident,” Chapman said, who is an American citizen. “It was an absurd situation. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by police and being carried outside.”

Most of the other people who were arrested that night had their charges dismissed, but Chapman was not so lucky, he said. He was charged with obstruction, rather than trespassing, which is what most of the others were charged with.

He has gone to five pre-trial hearings so far and has another scheduled in April.

“I came to express my moral and political beliefs,” Chapman said, “and I ended up being treated like a felon. While I never intended to be arrested, there is a point to being arrested: to display to the system that their laws are arbitrary and they lack legal grounds to suppress the people.”

Chapman’s legal merry-go-round is just one example of Occupy Seattle’s various feuds with the fuzz. About 100 members have been arrested since the first tents popped up in Westlake Park in early October, according to information gathered from Occupy Seattle’s website, Seattle Police Department reports and news sources.

The bulk of the arrests – between 50 and 60 – happened in October. The largest arrest total for a single day was 25 on Oct. 5, which was when the tents popped up and the Occupy Seattle movement began to gain some steam.

When Occupy Seattle members are arrested, the Occupy legal team helps connect them with pro-bono counsel, said Patricia Sully, a member of the team. The legal team also helps post bail for people who have been arrested during protests, but does not help pay for legal fees or fines, she said.

The latest arrests happened on Feb. 27, when Occupiers, torches in hand, took to the streets and called for the ouster of Seattle Police Chief John Diaz. The march ended, torches were extinguished and the Occupiers climbed the stairs to the lobby of Mayor Mike McGinn’s office. That is when they did what they arguably do best: occupy.

The group refused to leave at the 6 p.m. closing time and was given a verbal warning, according to SPD reports. All but 10 Occupiers left the area. The police arrested the remaining members and hauled them off to the nearest precinct to be booked for criminal trespassing.

According to an Associated Press survey taken in November, the city has spent about $625,000 of taxpayer money on Occupy Seattle protests.

During a general assembly meeting on March 4 each member of Occupy shared their favorite moment during the movement, many of which involved tales of protest and arrest. Liam Wright was the first member to share with the group.

“My favorite memory was on Nov. 2. I was getting pulled out of Chase Bank in handcuffs,” Wright said, “and I saw some of the most heroic, selfless and righteous people I’ve ever seen in my life. The same people, months ago, who might not have put themselves on the line. They locked arms and legs in front of the police van to keep us from being dragged away. They dove between the wheels, they got maced in the face and then wiped their faces and licked it.”

Wright is part of the “Chase 5,” a group of five Occupy Seattle members who were arrested on Nov. 2 when they refused to leave a Chase Bank branch on Capitol Hill. The Chase 5 will stand trial on March 13 for charges of first-degree trespass, which can result in a fine and jail time, but usually just results in a ticket, according to the University of Washington’s School of Law website.

“Without this movement, we would have never realized that it is more right to shut down a bank than for us to be arrested,” Wright said.

From inside the group, the arrests serve as an exclamation point to Occupy’s message – whichever message that might be. The arrests are a bonding experience and a rally cry. But, from the outside, the arrests may seem like a pointless nuisance that wastes taxpayer money. Either way, as long as Occupy Seattle remains active and pissed-off, odds are the protests and subsequent arrests will continue into the foreseeable future.

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