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Activists Testify in NYC police protest trial

By Jennifer Peltz Associated Press | Last updated: May 11, 2012 - 12:12:28 PM

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Nearly two dozen demonstrators arrested last year while protesting the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy appear in criminal court in New York, Monday, April 30, 2012. The group on trial includes Princeton University professor and civil rights activist Cornel West, seated front row third from right. It’s one of the biggest groups to go to trial together over political protest arrests in New York City in recent years. Photo: AP/ Wide World Photos
NEW YORK (AP) - Seizing an opportunity to spotlight their message, 20 critics of police stop-and-frisks began telling a judge that they shouldn’t have been arrested during a demonstration last fall.

While arguing that they hadn’t broken the law while protesting in front of a police station last fall, some said they willingly risked arrest to manifest their complaints about stop-and-frisks—officers stopping, questioning and sometimes frisking people considered to be behaving suspiciously, but not necessarily sought in any particular crime. Police say the stops net illegal weapons and curb crime; critics call them a racially tinged injustice.

One of the demonstrators, an Episcopal minister, told the court May 2 that police had stopped members of his congregation for what he believed was no reason. Another said both her children had been stopped. A third recounted once being questioned as he left his apartment building, asked for identification and asked to open his own apartment door with his key to show he belonged there.

“(The stop-and-frisk policy) sweeps up too many people who are innocent to be considered ethical. It’s unethical,” said the third protester, Gregory Allen, 39, a former social worker.

He and the 19 others, including Princeton University professor and civil rights activist Cornel West, are on trial on disorderly conduct charges stemming from an Oct. 21 protest outside a Harlem stationhouse.

Prosecutors say the group blocked the sidewalk and stationhouse entrance, were warned they would be arrested if they didn’t move, and deliberately ignored the police orders to make a political point. Speakers at a nearby rally before the stationhouse protest alluded to plans to get arrested, prosecutors said.

“This was an intentional blockage of the precinct door by people that, I submit to you, were trying to get arrested,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Lee Langston said during some legal arguments May 2.

Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Robert M. Mandelbaum had barred the activists from arguing that the protest’s purpose justified breaking laws. But they took the witness stand one-by-one to recount their arrests—and underscore their reason for being at the police station in the first place.

The protesters say they left a path on the sidewalk when officers asked them to, and no one was kept from entering or leaving the precinct, so police had no legal grounds to tell them to move.

“We were not and did not create a nuisance or inconvenience,” Nellie Hester Bailey told Judge Mandelbaum.

Ms. Bailey, a 67-year-old tenants’-rights advocate, said she went to the demonstration “with an open mind” about a potential arrest but didn’t aim to end up in custody. She said her goal was only to draw police and public attention to “what I believed are the immoral and illegal harassing and racist policies of stop-and-frisk,” adding that her two children have experienced the street stops.

The New York Police Department conducted more than 684,000 of them last year, stopping Blacks and Hispanics about 87 percent of the time. Blacks and Hispanics make up about 53 percent of the city population.

Only a fraction of last year’s stops—12 percent—led to arrests or summonses. But they also turned up more than 8,200 weapons, including 819 guns, police said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said police can stop and question people based on “reasonable suspicion,” a lower standard than the probable cause needed for an arrest or summons.

More of the protesters, including Mr. West, are expected to testify.

Disorderly conduct is a violation, not a crime. It carries a potential sentence of up to 15 days in jail.