Occupy Denver: Are police hassling legal observers?

The Colorado chapter of the National Lawyers Guild is offering free representation to those arrested in the Occupy Denver protests. The group's also been sending legal observers to demonstration sites -- and several have shared reports with chapter president Charles Nadler about police officers treating them improperly.

"The police know about our people who do legal observing," says Nadler, who was also heavily involved in representing individuals arrested during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. "They know our people aren't participating in the demonstrations -- that they're there to observe. And the way they can tell who those people are is because they're wearing fluorescent green hats. You can't mistake them. And they generally stay at a distance from where the demonstrations are taking place, but close enough so that they can see what's going on. And most people are also taking video with cell phone cameras -- and some of the police officers apparently don't like that."

Examples? "One of our legal observers saw a police officer chasing four other legal observers away," he notes. "He was not happy they were there. And another observer -- a very experienced, older gentleman who teaches as an adjunct at various places -- was crossing Broadway, moving about as fast as he could. And a police officer behind him reached out, actually stretched out with his big riot baton, and poked him in the back."

Of course, the observers' main job is to watch the interactions between protesters and police -- and they've told Nadler about a number of occasions when "people were arrested in situations that didn't seem to be appropriate. One of the things that happened during the DNC was police would block off a street, and when people couldn't get out, they were arrested for being in a place they weren't supposed to be. And some of the reports I got indicate that's what happened on Broadway on Friday."

Granted, he's also heard about situations in which police provided escape routes for people who wanted to avoid arrest. But when asked about press coverage praising officers for their restraint in dealing with the Occupy Denver backers, he says, "I think that's being overstated by the media."

Thus far, volunteer attorneys assembled with assistance from the National Lawyers Guild and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar have stood in for many, if not all, of the 46 people arrested to date; by Nadler's count, there have been fifty busts, with four individuals (including Westword profile subject Corey Donahue) getting the treatment twice. Not all of they attorneys will be available for the future court appearances of individuals to whom they've been assigned. So they'll be getting together tonight to swap cases, with an eye toward making sure everyone has representation at the next stage of the legal process.

The lawyers will approach each client differently -- but Nadler says most will likely rely in part on video from the site, which is available in abundance. They'll also take on broader issues, like the right to free speech and assembly.

Nadler cites what he sees as contradictory statements from Governor John Hickenlooper about Lincoln Park -- whether it's available for use during the daytime or if it's closed to all protest-related activity. "It's hard to know exactly what he's saying," he admits. "But if it's closed indefinitely, and it was most definitely a speech forum, then to close it entirely conflicts on its face with the general proposition of the law. Government can control time, place and manner of speech, but it can't shut it out altogether -- and it appears that's what government was doing.

"Another interesting question comes up over the claim that people were camping there overnight. From one perspective, yes, they were camping. But from another perspective, the camping was a form of demonstrating. Legally, whether or not camping can be considered demonstrating hasn't been answered -- and if it is, is it legal to arrest people for protesting?"

Meanwhile, future arrestees should know attorneys are standing by to help them. Says Nadler, "That's part of the reason we exist."

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More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver petition protests arrests, hopes for 10,000 signatures."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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