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Atlantica protest trial – solidarity has a powerful effect but one goes to jail

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Feb 27, 2010

Two years and eight months after the June 15, 2007 Atlantica protest and 21 arrests, the four people who remained on trial – myself, Colin, Aaron and George – finally reached our sentencing date: February 24, 2010. It was, and will continue to be, a long struggle, which has been marked by great examples of solidarity along the way. But one out of four was thrown in jail.

 

Background

(I won't recount the protest and whole court battle here, because that's a story on its own)

Upon our June 15th arrests, we spent three days in jail, and had to endure release conditions since then, which included: non-association with all the others arrested at the protest; prohibition from attending protests; an obligation to report to the court any changes of address; the requirement to show up to court on demand; and, the blanket “keep the peace and be of good behaviour”, which meant everyone had to ensure they were not charged with any new offenses, or else suffer a further charge of Breach, then go to jail.

It came to the decision on November 27th 2010. The judge, Michael Sherar, had to rule on our two arguments for shutting down the proceedings and on our charges themselves. We made arguments about violation of our Charter rights through the arrests and jail and about the trial being delayed beyond what should be allowed. The judge firmly decided against the Charter argument and ruled that the delay was only “borderline”, even though the period went beyond the delay precedents. Then, we were all found guilty of at least one charge amongst: unlawful assembly, possession of a marble (“weapon”) dangerous to the public, obstruction of a Peace Officer and breach of previous conditions.

 

Sentencing Date

Prior to our sentencing date, a significant effort was put into packing the courtroom. Similar efforts have been put into past court appearances, but this time, something was different. It was clear that this was the conclusion of the long trial process; that convictions had already been entered; and, that the judge was ready to hand down punishment. It was the last opportunity to let the judge see that the defendants had support. This, no doubt, helped build momentum. But there was also the feeling that many had about the whole situation being unfair, where four people were forced through such a long process when none were actually convicted of harming any person or even destroying any property. Guilty by association was the main theme. But despite the acknowledgment of unfairness, the sheer sketchiness of the connection between the defendants and any particular actions lead many onlookers to previously think the charges would eventually be dropped, but by the November 27th decision, it was clear that such a possibility vanished. All in all, people knew their presence was needed for February 24th.

The courtroom was so full that not everyone could even get in. One person heard a court cop say he'd never seen it so full. All told, more than 60 people made it out, representing a very diverse crowd of youth, professors, union organizers, environmentalists, students, unemployed and organizers from Halifax's resilient black community, who particularly understand repression. More than once during the sentencing hearing, the judge looked up and you could tell he felt the presence of the unprecedented crowd.

The Crown, Eric Woodburn conducted his arguments for sentencing first. He began with me. He started by characterizing the protest as an example of anarchy and how society could not allow anarchy to erode democratic values. Peaceful protest was well and good according to Woodburn, but the anarchy and violence at the Atlantica protest was a threat to our very social fabric. He also made reference to the fact that there was an upcoming G8 conference in Halifax, and an example needed to be set to ensure that everyone knew that anarchy and violence would not be allowed there. In my view, his arguments came across as a rant. Additionally, since the beginning of this trial, Woodburn has harped on the fact that I gave a presentation about resistance to Atlantica and global resistance to neoliberalism a few days before the protest, and that this, in addition to the fact that I have been at many other protests, showed that I was clearly a leader figure at the protest. However, no evidence was ever entered about me having anything more than a participatory role. Throughout Woodburn's entire commentary, he cited no case law, and made no reference to any specific witness testimonies to back up his position. This limited preparation reflected his total overconfidence that the result he desired was a formality. For me, he wanted one month of jail time. But he was not ready for what happened after.

My non-lawyer agent was a law student just about to graduate. Woodburn probably thought he'd be a pushover, but he was mistaken. My agent only had a few days to prepare because of my late request, but he worked with me non-stop during that time, finding the relevant precedents to put together a very strong case. I told him what I wanted done, and he translated it into an impressive case against my going to jail, and he did it all pro bono, out of a sheer commitment to those struggling for social justice. After he was done, the judge, known as one of the tougher ones in this kind of case, was in a position where he could do little other than favour my agent's arguments. He had to go with the “existing case law”, which my agent presented as showing that someone in my situation should NOT get jail time. Woodburn, in contrast, gave no case law to back his position for incarceration. I am of the view that if Woodburn would have given some case law to try and validate his position, the story might have ended differently because the judge would have been given an option. In the end, the judge ruled for a conditional discharge, with 18 months of probation and 100 hours of community service, $50 fine for each of my two charges, a weapons ban for 5 years (he didn't say whether or not it included marbles). My record of discharge lasts for an additional 3 years after my probation ends.

For George, the Crown also tried for the same punishment and the result was identical to mine, aside from the weapons ban. The Crown didn't repeat the same speech in arguments for George's sentence, but added in a few specific anecdotes to reflect George's circumstances. George's Legal Aid lawyer really just had to make a few points about potential harm that jail could present for his client, but was bascally riding on the coattails of my agent's thorough defense.

The same general context was presented for Colin. Duty Counsel represented him and put forward an argument about Colin's positive personal development and how his precarious socioeconomic status should be taken into consideration for sentencing. He ended up with a suspended sentence and the same conditions as George, except without the $100 fine due to his socioeconomic status. A suspended sentence basically means the jail sentence is put off to give a chance for the defendant to go through the probationary period, and if successful with no new charges arising, the judge usually throws out the sentence.

Aaron got the worst punishment. The Crown focused on his breach of a previous condition as being particularly problematic and presented how there was another breach of release conditions (non-association) since the arrest. The characterization was of someone who chose to flout his conditions. Aaron's Legal Aid lawyer presented a very reasoned defense, that Aaron harmed NO ONE in his breaches and that none of the breaches could be conceived of as part of disruptive actions. He also explained how Aaron had already performed community service for a previous arrest, and generally commented on how incarceration would be very detrimental. But all these great arguments mattered little; the Court tends to go hard on “contempt” related charges, where they feel their authority is being questioned/disrespected. Nevermind that Aaron did not harm anyone, the fact that the Court feels insulted is enough validation for them to put Aaron in a concrete room. He got 15 days, along with a criminal record. Even after the whole 2-year-and-8-month ordeal, he still got more jail.

 

An appeal?

There is no word yet about whether or not there will be an appeal. A lot needs to be considered to go for an appeal, including time and money, but also the potential of making a social cause out of the appeal, pros and cons.

 

In Solidarity

The whole saga, between the original arrests and today, has seen many court appearances and a decent chunk of money spent on covering basic costs that were court related.

We were initially defended collectively by non-lawyer agent Vaughn Barnett, a low income social justice activist with law degree and years of experience with similar efforts. Out of a commitment to social justice, he defended four comrades who were otherwise without a legal defense. He helped whittle down the charges before the decision. Then, for my sentencing, another comrade stepped in to assist me when I got myself stuck trying to represent myself.

We also were helped with a few benefit shows along the way, which assisted us in covering our costs. Several performers over the last 2-plus years have participated.

Never did we show up in court without at least some people in the stands to back us up. On our last day in court, we added an exclamation mark with a packed house.

All along the way, these acts of solidarity helped with the designed-to-be stressful court battle. But more importantly, the solidarity created examples of people helping each other out through social struggles. They are valuable stories, to be repeated in whatever forms each particular battle requires. I personally hope that the examples of solidarity shown through the particular battle that me and my friends have gone through can be expanded the next time someone has to face similar challenges, and the next time ...

One person is still in a concrete room. He has been getting messages of support, which will hopefully continue upon his release.

Thank you everyone for being there for us and let it be reciprocated when the time comes

Asaf

 


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1722 words

Comments

I can't believe after all

I can't believe after all this time, especially when no one was harmed that any of you got time...this is not justice....

Asaf Can I blog this story???

Can I blogged this story in my blog?

 

Good one!!!!

 

Let me know by sending me an email at

 

oldmaison@yahoo.com

Justice

Poor to those who are involved, i cant see any justice in that trial.

Sr Smith

Honestly

This seems like something out of a movie.  I won't even get into the concept of the case, but the fact that you beat a tough court setup with a law student (working on short notice no less!) is pretty remarkable.

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