Eleven people received arrest warrants in February for their alleged involvement in an occupation of an empty Wells Fargo building on River Street last fall.
On April 25, Judge Paul Burdick ruled there was not enough evidence to bring four of the arrested to trial. But the Santa Cruz District Attorney’s office — referred to as “the People” in court — is still prosecuting the remaining seven.
Five of those on trial are journalists, while the other two are media spokespeople for the occupation. The charges they face include felony conspiracy to vandalize and vandalism charges, as well as two misdemeanor counts of trespassing.
If the remaining defendants go to trial, their cases could set a precedent in local law enforcement that might make it difficult for future unsanctioned events like Occupy Santa Cruz to be documented by alternative news outlets.
“People are really being put under a blanket of fear, and it becomes difficult to report clearly what actually happened,” said Robert Norse, a longtime Santa Cruz activist and one of the independent journalists facing charges.
On Nov. 30 of last year, a group in solidarity with Occupy Santa Cruz took over the vacant Wells Fargo building at 75 River Street with the intent to repurpose the building into a community center. Police posted signs on Dec. 2 warning the protesters they were trespassing and had to leave. On Dec. 3, the protesters were gone.
The accused journalists work for alternative news sources such as Indybay and Free Radio Santa Cruz and argue that they were covering the occupation as a newsworthy event.
The event was covered by other larger local news sources — such as the Santa Cruz Sentinel — but no reporters from these publications face charges.
The DA is primarily relying on police testimony and the arrested photojournalists’ work to demonstrate that the accused entered and remained in the building illegally.
Prosecuting attorney Rebekah Young will have to prove that the defendants continuously occupied the building even after being told by police officers that they were breaking the law and to disperse. In addition, the prosecution has yet to offer substantial evidence of premeditation, crucial to charging an individual with conspiracy.
“It just wasn’t a situation where people were thinking they were really even doing anything wrong. It’s very possible that a lot of people showed up and had no idea what that building was,” said Bradley Allen, an Indybay photojournalist and one of the accused.
Allen said he is not a part of Occupy Santa Cruz, was covering the event in a professional context as he has covered similar events, and did not see or hear any announcements that people were trespassing.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Society of Professional Journalists, National Press Photographers Association and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have all issued statements condemning Allen’s prosecution.
Police nationwide have arrested more than 75 journalists covering Occupy-related protests, but most of the cases have been dropped.
“There’s no first amendment exception to criminal acts, and yet virtually no judge that’s had this kind of issue come up in front of him has allowed a prosecution to continue,” said Ben Rice, Allen’s attorney. “They have time and time again thrown out cases against journalists who have been snapped up by law enforcement in the context of covering demonstrations.”
The prosecution has had “chilling” effects on involved individuals and the community, both Allen and Norse said. In addition to imposing great financial expense on both the Santa Cruz city government and those being prosecuted, courtroom proceedings have jeopardized defendants’ jobs, homes and personal relationships.
Despite this challenge for activists and independent journalists nationwide, in the future, Allen said, ““¡Ni un paso atrás! Not one step back, but getting more people to take steps forward, to say that this is wrong and to demand the right to cover the news.”
A rally is planned for May 4 at 1 p.m. at the Santa Cruz courthouse to support those arrested.