It took more than a year for Suffolk County prosecutors to come to their senses. With Nemo bearing down on New England and the media buried in storm coverage, the DA's office quietly dropped all charges against more than two dozen Occupy Boston protesters, whose cases — as the Phoenix has previously reported — have been kicked through a legal labyrinth, their right to a speedy trial denied.
These 27 cases were the final remnants of the mass arrests that took place during separate incidents in Dewey Square and on the adjoining Rose Kennedy Greenway in late 2011. Over 100 of the demonstrators took plea deals; but the rest, refusing to concede guilt, chose to fight their cases — five of which were scheduled to commence at trial this month. "So why," asked a headline on the Occupy Boston Radio blog, "aren't we celebrating?"
Put simply, it could have been infinitely more fruitful for Occupiers to proceed in court. Through the discovery process and via other legal maneuvers, their National Lawyers Guild (NLG) attorneys had begun to pry open the Pandora's box of authoritative shenanigans that have enshrouded these charges since day one. At trial, the city would have likely been made to produce everything from surveillance videos that show police misconduct to evidence of deliberate press suppression. With the Occupy charges vacated, that white whale may now be impossible to catch.
In a press release issued hours after prosecutors absolved the Hub Occupiers, NLG-Massachusetts Executive Director Urszula Masny-Latos explained the bittersweetness of what she describes as an "unscheduled, unilateral action." "Defendants and their NLG lawyers spent months working to prepare a case that could potentially embarrass the City, and set valuable precedent that would reaffirm the constitutional rights of free speech and assembly," wrote Masny-Latos. "[Suffolk County prosecutors] have employed yet another way to trample upon those who voice dissent."
The NLG has an admittedly radical agenda, and had requested loads of documents and cop recordings from the Greenway showdowns. But the prosecution of the Occupiers had reeked of political pugilism from the start; the NLG was just making lemonade. There's also the issue of how plausible these charges ever were — some protesters were slapped with "disturbing the peace" for occupying public space; others, all of them male, were cited for "resisting arrest." Masny-Latos says the NLG is "exploring various legal options" to keep these Occupy cases in the court system; meanwhile, after 14 months of stalling proceedings and dodging full compliance on discovery, the DA's office — at least in its own mind — has wiped its hands of this mess.
Reached by the Phoenix, DA spokesman Jake Wark said that the Occupy Boston cases are unprecedented — that he can't think of a comparable trespassing case, with multiple defendants, ever going to trial. Wark also told the Globe that advancing the prosecution would consume even more valuable resources that could be used to litigate violent crime — this in the wake of so much frustrating pre-trial rigmarole, and despite the fact that Suffolk could have made this move a year ago. Whatever their official reasoning might be, though, it's obvious that the DA's office understands the ridiculousness of the situation, and as such we can count these dismissals as an admission that the Occupy Boston defendants shouldn't have faced heat in the first place. But with that small win aside, after so much time and tedium, the DA's sketchy, sudden gesture is hardly consolation for denying us a First Amendment legal precedent, or for depriving us of whatever dirt the NLG was sure to dredge up at trial.