On March 5th, in the matter of The People v. Wells Fargo the jury found us, the 12 Occupy Philly protestors arrested in November 2011 for a sit-in against the banks' predatory lending practices and mafia-like policies, NOT GUILTY. It was an example of free speech triumphing over property rights. Thank you to everyone for the support! It got us through that anxious time.
Our “Citizens Foreclosure” of a Wells Fargo (WF) branch in November of 2011 was designed to draw attention to the crimes of this big banking business based primarily in the West Coast that had rolled into Philadelphia a few years ago and has since made its presence virtually ubiquitous. When we sat down to stand up to these banksters that November, Wells Fargo was committing serious crimes that were going under-reported: The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (as would later the US Department of Justice) cited WF for racist predatory lending; WF had fooled the Philadelphia school district into toxic swap deals to the tune of 330 million dollars lost (in a year where the district just closed 23 schools); Families were being thrown out of their homes in unjust foreclosures; And the bank, even with its billions in profits, wasn’t even (and still isn’t) paying its taxes. All the while, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf was pulling in millions a year while our school district was paying $90 million in cancellation fees for Wells Fargo’s own ill-advised swaps. Very little of this was being discussed in the public arena, and somebody had to say something. So we, the "citizens of Occupy Philadelphia" went into a Wells Fargo branch, sat down in their public waiting room, and waited on the world to change.
After waiting for an hour and half for someone from the bank to answer for their crimes, the Philadelphia police department decided to arrest us at one point (during bank hours, mind you) for “defiant trespassing and criminal conspiracy” which is code for what we actually did: Exercise our human right of free expression by staging a boisterous piece of political theatre designed to bring these crimes out of the darkness of corporate board rooms and into the light of day and onto the street where every day people could see it. No, we were arrested for the political ramifications of our action, because corporations are backed by local and federal law enforcers; not because of where and when it took place. In the end, the rights of people to stand up to profit-driven big-banking business were being arrested and put on trial against corporate state-protected property rights.
Our first trial (a bench trial with only a judge, no jury) ended in a guilty verdict back in July 2012. However, we since are constitutionally guaranteed the right to be judged by our peers, most of us immediately appealed for a jury trial. That trial just concluded with a not guilty verdict last week (3/5/2013, at precisely noon). What I find interesting is why were we found not guilty.
During the second day of deliberation of our appeal trial, the jury had a question for the judge: to explain “justification defense.” I learned last week that the justification defense is a legal argument that says that if a minor harm is committed in order to prevent an even greater harm, then the defendant(s) is not guilty. The jury wanted to know if they were dealing with a group who was justified in their action. They wanted to know if we thought we were acting in order to prevent a greater harm? If so, then these were not lawless acts, but necessary ones.
Halfway through the third day of deliberation, the court called us back for the verdict—not guilty. The jury seemed to be convinced that it was necessary for us to take direct (albeit first amendment protected) action to inform the public about Wells Fargo’s theft from schools, tax evasion, and predatory lending practices that would make Tony Soprano proud.
After the trial, Judge Nina Wright Padilla asked us to approach the bench to shake her hand. She commented that we were ""most affable group of defendants [she'd] ever come across" and that she "hoped we continued our work…in a law-abiding way," she added. Also, early during the prosecution's case Mr. Stinsman, the assistant District Attorney (DA) assigned to our case, called a Philadelphia Police Officer of the Civil Affairs Unit to testify as a witness. During cross-examination the Officer admitted that he "admired" our work and us. It seemed that everybody in Philadelphia stood on our side except the DA's office and Wells Fargo. Which reminds me: whom does the DA’s office protect and serve? The corporate interest or the people?
(Another interesting development of this trial was the blatant abuse of social media by Philadelphia DA Seth Williams who trash talked us on twitter during the trial. See tweets here)
So now what?
In the press conference following the not guilty verdict, Larry Kranser, one of our priceless defense attorneys, presented what could perhaps be considered a way for Wells Fargo to start to make amends to our city when he urged them to "give back the money [they] took from the school district." Maybe that could be a first step to the federal government prosecuting big banks like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC, and UBS among others in open court. Mr. Krasner also suggested that DA Williams "pay back the tax dollars it cost to prosecute these fine people."
I want to end with a quote from Michael Coard, another of our fabulous attorneys, because I think it sums up the drama, gravity, and consequences of the action and trial of the WF14: “The people should not be afraid of greedy, exploitative, gouging and– yes – criminal banks; Banks should be afraid of the people.”
Special thanks to our amazing attorneys and support team: Marni Snyder, Mike Lee, Jonathan Feinburg, Leo Mulvihill, Michael Coard, Larry Krasner, Paul Hetsnecker, Jody Dodd, the Up Against the Law Collective, and all our comrades who came to support us during the trial.