Thursday, June 7, 2012

Occupy Asheville Trial: Citizen Journalist Lisa Landis "Not Guilty!"

Attorney Ben Scales with a victorious Lisa Landis 

“Homefree" In More Ways Than One!

by Clare Hanrahan

“It was a half a cigarette verdict,” Lisa Landis joked, with a wide grin and obvious relief outside the Buncombe County Courthouse in Asheville, North Carolina.  Landis had earlier been called back to the courtroom less than fifteen minutes after the jury left to deliberate her case. She was on trial for impeding traffic, a misdemeanor with potential for 20 days jail time.  Landis maintained her innocence and contends she was targeted for prosecution because she is a critic of Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, and was well known as a public media producer on the free-speech forum UR-TV.

 “I’ve never seen a not guilty that fast,” said defense attorney Ben Scales. Even the court bailiff was pleased, winking at Landis as she left the courtroom and telling Scales, “I’m glad people are standing up for what they believe in.” Jury members in the elevator and leaving the courthouse were also in high spirits and glad to get out into the cool, bright mountain day. “I’ve still got time to go fishing,” one said.

Landis, a 53 year old homeless grandmother, is “homefree” as she calls her current circumstance.  She hitched rides eight times from Florida to Asheville and back to make her numerous court appearances.  “Flying a sign” is how she characterized her travel. “If I didn’t have faith, I couldn’t make it,” she said of the ordeal. “I was falsely arrested.”

It was a heartening two-day trial despite a surprising lack of supportive presence from among Asheville’s Occupy movement and the more than 150 persons who occupied the streets during the Nov. 2 march and rally for which Lisa faced charges. In addition to court officials and attorneys, only three others were present for the trial.

Landis appealed an April 26, 2012, conviction in the Buncombe County District Court. She had been filming a march and rally on November 2, 2012, in which Occupy Asheville participants took to the streets in solidarity with Occupy Oakland’s Scott Olsen, a two-time Iraq war veteran seriously wounded by a police projectile during an Oakland street demonstration.

Landis, a former producer with the now-dismantled community television station UR-TV had been picked up three days after the Nov. 2 rally on three warrants, charged with Resist, Delay and Obstruct, Impeding the Flow of Traffic and Unlawful Assembly. Prosecutors dropped two of the charges prior to trial. Police testimony in her earlier trial revealed that downtown officers were ordered by supervisors to review surveillance video and pick out individuals they knew.  Eleven persons, including this writer serving as a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer at the time, were selected for prosecution based on police surveillance video and arrested on warrants.

A humorous moment occurred the first day of trial when Asheville’s familiar flying nun, who accompanies the La Zoom tourist bus, was called for jury duty.  During the jury interview process, he quipped “I might have a problem because I regularly impede traffic.”  (S)he was dismissed from jury duty. Another in the pool, a professed anti-war activist, remained on the jury as did a student videographer.  “I looked at the jury and I knew I had at least one,” the defense attorney said later. The final jury consisted of four women, and eight men, who appeared to range from their mid 20s to mid 50s in age.

Defense Attorney Ben Scales, in what he later revealed was his first ever solo jury trial, has appeared in court numerous times in the past few months to offer pro-bono defense for Occupy Asheville participants.  He characterized his clients as “the real heroes,” but he articulately championed Landis’ case and his closing arguments clearly moved the jury to return the just verdict of not guilty. It was an important victory for civil liberties and the freedom of citizen journalists to cover public dissent without fear of prosecution.
This writer was not present during the first day of trial where, according to Scales, Asheville police sergeant Brown testified that he ordered the streets blocked by police cars “in the interest of public safety,” as the Nov. 2 marchers moved through the streets. Police surveillance video and video by citizen journalist Landis was introduced as evidence, and Occupy Asheville chants, including “Give the police a raise!” once again rang through the courtroom.

On the first day of Landis’ trial, former UR-TV producer Larry Grillo, who arrived at the Buncombe County courthouse at 8:30 a.m. to support Landis was misdirected to the wrong courtroom, then misdirected again to a jury room where he was held until 11:30 a.m.  “I was trying to get to her trial, but I was pushed into a jury room,” he said.  I thought the trial was on the fifth floor, but they told me “There’s nothing going on down there.”  He returned for the final day to witness Landis’ victory in court.

Lisa Landis arrives for trial Buncombe County Superior Court
Asheville Legal Observer Sunny Rawls attended both days, observing from a front pew in the ornate Courtroom No. 5. All but two of the 18 mahogany pews in the magnificent courtroom were vacant.  Tall windows draped with deep green velvet curtains trimmed in gold braid with gold tasseled tiebacks let in the morning light and fluted flat columns gave the walls a stately feel, hung with oil portraits of judges who presided in years past. The ornate ceiling was decorated elaborately and a wide balcony in the rear could accommodate another fifty observers had they realized the first amendment import of this case.
Judge Gary Gavenus presided from a mahogany dais with a large round seal of North Carolina behind him.  His courtroom was a model of due process and his interactions with the prosecution and defense attorneys and his instructions to the jury were detailed and informative, a fine civics lesson for those of us who seldom find ourselves before a judge.  

Assistant District Attorney Steen prosecuted the case, calling the charges against Landis “a simple, straightforward case,” and asked the jury to convict her on the charge of impeding traffic.  “She stood in the street,” he charged. “Traffic could not flow because of her actions.”

Defense Attorney Scales, in his closing argument, emphasized the “willful” element of the charge. “Impeding of traffic must be willful,” he said, citing a case law that he said he had discovered at 6:30 a.m. the day of the trial. “The Defendant must intend to impede traffic….If you find that she did not willfully impede traffic, you must find her not guilty.”  

“Lisa Landis did not want to get arrested. She did not participate in civil disobedience. She was trying to observe the expression of free speech engaged in by the marchers. …Ms. Landis is a citizen journalist, sympathetic to the movement.  She was totally caught off guard when she was arrested. Not at the event, but days later. 

If we allow our police to do that, when are they coming after the rest of us?” 
At 11:30 a.m. on June 7, 2012, twelve jurors in Buncombe County Superior Court returned a not guilty verdict for citizen journalist Lisa Landis.  Homefree!  Justice was served today in Buncombe County.

Landis says she will file a civil suit for false arrest on three false charges.

 Photo by Clare Hanrahan (with camera generously gifted by Anne Gietzen to this citizen journalist!)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

NATO Chicago: "Let Them March All They Want..."

Brad Lyttle, Coleman Smith, Clare Hanrahan and Kima Garrison in Chicago

"Let them march all they want, just so long as they pay their taxes."  
U.S. Sec. of State Alexander Haig, 1982.

It was a telling detour when we New South Network field organizers missed our exit off the I-90 Skyway to emerge in the economically oppressed and under served Chicago South Side, rather than our Hyde Park meeting destination. This unplanned drive through the disenfranchised side of Chicago underscored how important it is in our work to not overlook class and race. More and more we see increasing numbers of people who must struggle daily to maintain themselves, while the war-waging, capitalist elite, profit obscenely from what seems to be an endless War on Earth through a culture of violence, exploitation and domination.

New South Network friend and supporter Ellen Thomas, of Proposition One and an original occupier in front of the White House for nearly two decades, loaned us her car for the journey from Asheville to Chicago, and war tax resister and  organizing colleague Redmoonsong helped out with funds for the long journey.  We participated in the twice yearly gathering of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC)  and the rally, march, and protest against the NATO Summit.   NWTRCC is a coalition of groups and individuals from across the United States, formed in 1982 to provide information and support to people involved in or considering some form of war tax resistance.   At our twice annual meetings we strategize about ways and means of refusing to pay for war, building and sustaining community and providing mutual support.

May 2012 NWTRCC in Chicago
Clare Hanrahan rotated off the NWTRCC Administrative Committee as Carlos Steward, recently released from federal prison for his conscientious objection to paying for war,  was accepted for a two year term.  Carlos did final editing on the NWTRCC film Death and Taxes, with interviews of war tax resisters from across the US, showing their varied lifestyles and challenges as conscientious objectors to paying for war.... "If you work against war, why are you paying for it?"   

NWTRCC's May 2013 meeting will be held in Asheville, N. C.  We are looking for a site to celebrate NWTRCC’s 30th anniversary this November.  One of the most dynamic, supportive aspects of our meetings is hearing the stories and reports about local resistance work happening around the country, and re-connecting with one another.                                     
A current project is the Rapid Outreach Working Group (ROWG), organized to quickly respond to requests for information, speakers, and materials on war tax resistance as new situations arise. You can contact ROWG through Action South for more details.               

Given that NATO is, for the most part, an International Military Intervention Force  under the command of the United States, it was doubly appropriate to meet in consultation with war tax resisters from across the country, while some of the world's worse offending war mongers gathered nearby. With security for the NATO Summit on high alert, major highways were shut down, traffic was detoured in and around a large part of central Chicago, which had been converted into a militarized zone, cordoned off, with check points and a massive police presence, helicopters and fighter jets patrolling over head, and rumored inflatable Zodiac boats, mounted with machine guns, keeping an eye on the Lake Michigan approach to the Exposition Center - ground zero for the NATO dignitaries.

Along the way we stayed with our friends Jim Scheff and Tina Marie Johnson who coordinate and direct the forest protection network Kentucky Heartwood. They opened their beautifully crafted home in Berea, Kentucky to us for an overnight respite and fed us well at the family table  as we compared how the work we each do supports and sustains the just world we seek. We work to end the death and destruction of our planetary systems by violent conflict; and they to assure that what is left of the natural world is thriving and whole, and continues to lift and regenerate us all. We were in a moment of realization that the anti-militarism/peace and justice movement has a direct connection to the environmental justice movement and in fact are part of an even larger need to end ruthless exploitations of all human, plant, animal, and natural resources on Earth.      

For our weekend of radical organizing and protest in Chicago, we enjoyed the hospitality of our 84 year old friend and colleague,  Brad Lyttle, long time peace activist and icon of the movement.  In 2011 Brad was with us in Asheville for our gathering of Southeast Nonviolent Direct Action trainers.  Brad has lived in what was his parent's home since 1942. With one sailboat docked in his small front yard and two more behind the house amid miscellaneous materials and artifacts, you might say that Brad is not your typical Hyde Park resident - but more on our generous host and intrepid peace warrior in our next Action South post.

As we weaved our way through street construction, detours and primarily black neighborhoods, looking for Brad's house, the dramatic transition out of the South 
Side, continued through what can only be described as a  physical, socioeconomic,  and cultural demarcation - formed by solid urban infield, a hospital district, blending with the University of Chicago/Hyde Park area, multi-cultural, well educated and privileged with its well manicured lawns, public landscapes, beautiful homes and structures. Brad recalled a description of the Hyde Park district by a Chicago journalist as “ and white, standing shoulder to shoulder, against the lower class.”  

On Friday evening, our merry band of war tax resisters traveled to the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ which served as a welcome center for protesters. Author and activist  David Swanson spoke on the Military Industrial Complex.  He was introduced by Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, who two days later was on her way on another peace mission to Kabul, Afghanistan.

On Saturday we stood for two hours in Grant Park with our banners while we distributed hundreds of pieces of  informational literature on war tax resistance. We fit seamlessly into what was the perfect spot to catch the eyes and ears of the thousands of people gathering to march against NATO's and the United States' prosecution of war for profit and military hegemony of our planet. 

We fielded press interviews for TV, radio, and print media.  There seemed to be people from all over the world, with colorful signs, banners, and powerful messages declaring that we will not accept a doctrine of war for our lives and the future.

 An estimated 6-7,000 people marched through downtown Chicago for another two hot hours amid a massive police presence which itself was in the thousands.

As the peaceful demonstration approached McCormick Place near where world leaders were meeting, we were being corralled into an area of chain link fencing surrounded by fully armored tactical police on foot and horses while  helicopters hovered above.  Dozens of Iraq Veterans Against the War, protected by a ring of Veterans for Peace, demonstrated their disgust with the war and how they have been betrayed by the Pentagon and its "global war on terror," by hurling their medals over the fence at the building were the world leaders met.

As our group was making its way out of the area, through dense layers of even more police squadrons, ready for action,we heard our friend and IVAW member Jason Hurd declare to the assembly through a microphone,  how deeply sorry he was for the destruction of the war.  Jason had just visited Asheville with Operation Recovery, and IVAW campaign for GI and Veterans' Right to Heal. Their courage to confront the military hegemony of the US and it's NATO pawn must spring from their basic warrior's training to face and defeat an enemy. One is left with the obvious question of,  "Who is the real enemy?"    --coleman smith 

Photos by Ruth Benn, NWTRCC staff