After months of waiting and sifting through discovery, Mercer Lewis, 21, became the first Occupy Denver activist to take his case in front of a jury yesterday. After the trial, Lewis, who was found not guilty on the charge of obstructing a street or passageway, had a great deal to say about the jury's decision and its implications for his peers. But first, he had a request. "First, have you seen the moon? Go outside and look at it."
On November 12, police arrested Lewis for obstruction after an altercation that found protesters abandoning Civic Center Park to march down the 16th Street Mall. Approximately 100 protesters and 200 police officers took part in the night's events, which ended with nineteen arrests. (Four of the arrestees have since pleaded guilty.) At around 6:45 p.m., police took Lewis into custody at the northwest corner of 14th and Larimer.
In the weeks since then, several cases have been scheduled to be the first to go to trial, only to be continued to later dates. Although Lewis is the first to go to court, he is not the first to have reached a result: At least twenty protesters have entered guilty pleas to a variety of charges beginning with the group's first eviction on October 14. (He is also not the first to be free of charges: One case was mysteriously lost.)
Lewis, known to fellow occupiers as "Cottonwood," was represented in court by Jessica Jackson, who took on his case pro bono as part of the Colorado Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild's push to guarantee free legal service. In court yesterday, she stressed Lewis's role as an individual who must be distinguished from the tide of the larger Occupy Wall Street movement.
In this video, Lewis can be seen performing at an Occupy Denver concert.
"They gave us a lot of information in the discovery, but there was only one video presented and we both used it," Lewis says. The video captured Lewis speaking over police officers in an attempt to explain himself as they read his charges on camera. Although the prosecution's discovery included extensive video resources from HALO cameras and footage of altercations, this evidence did not appear in court.
According to Lewis, however, anti-Occupy sentiments did. "They kept trying to bring up that Occupy is this bad movement of angry people with no direction, and they like to erect tents.," Lewis says. "They kept saying 'erect tents.'" The night of Lewis's arrest, the evening's original altercation began with the erection of three tents, which are not connected to his charge. Instead, city attorneys argued that Lewis ignored legal crosswalks and danced in front of oncoming traffic.
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This is Lewis's first criminal charge. During court, Lewis and fellow occupiers spent their quarter-hour wait for a verdict smoking tobacco in a circle outside, after which he says the declaration felt like a collective victory.
"That was one of the instances where you actually rely on your fellow people in this country, and I really wasn't that surprised," Lewis says. In the meantime, he is working toward the release of his first album, much of which is inspired by his time as an activist and songwriter at Occupy Denver. "I think what it means for the rest of us is that spring is here. It eventually has nothing to do with just me, but that this is the next phase in this movement."
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver update: 100-plus arrests, more charges added, one case misplaced."