Occupy Wall Street protesters get arrested a lot, and for many different charges. Sometimes those charges are just plain silly. Most recently, a video's been circulating of a guy in Lansing, Michigan getting taken into custody for violating an obscure law against wearing a mask. Oddly, it's not even the first time that same charge has been used to take occupiers into custody. The site Occupy Arrests, which documents Occupy-related arrests nationwide, lists 5,980 as of Jan. 23.* Gideon Oliver, who represents Occupy with the National Lawyers Guild in New York, said via telephone that about 2,000 had been arrested just in New York City alone. Most of these arrests in New York and elsewhere, are on charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing, and failure to disperse. You know, the things you'd expect people to get nabbed for during a protest. But there are some pretty weird and obscure charges out there as well, showing the lengths to which some cities will go when frustrated by persistent protesters.
Wearing a Mask in Public: This is definitely the silliest charge we've heard of. A few jurisdictions have laws about this, and it seems pretty weird considering millions of children (America's youth!) violate it every Halloween. According to the Wall Street Journal, "New York's law dates back to 1845, when lawmakers tried to quell uprisings by tenant farmers who 'used disguises to attack law enforcement officers,' according to a later U.S. Court of Appeals ruling." And the Village Voice points out: "In 1965 the law was updated to prevent masked gatherings of two or more people, except in the case of masquerade parties." In Michigan, the law actually specifies that it's only illegal to wear a mask if you're also committing a crime, which the person in this video doesn't appear to be doing:
Lynching: Yes, you read that right. Lynching. If wearing a mask is the silliest charge, lynching is the most outrageous. An Occupy protester in Los Angeles got hit with lynching charges earlier this month, as did a group in Oakland on Dec. 30. But not for trying to hang anyone, as the term implies. According to MSNBC, "Under the California penal code, lynching is 'taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer,' where 'riot' is defined as two or more people threatening violence or disturbing the peace." In this case, 30-year-old Sergio Ballesteros got charged with lynching for trying to stop police from arresting a drummer during a protest in Los Angeles, and the Oakland charges stem from the Oct. 25 raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment. It seems laughable, but it's a felony that could bring a four year sentence for those convicted. So yeah, lynching's pretty serious.
Felony Conspiracy: The charge of conspiracy itself is perhaps not all that obscure, but it came as a shock to occupiers in San Diego that they were being hit with felony criminal conspiracy charges for interrupting the mayor's State of the City speech. Heckling officials during speeches is an extremely common thing for activists, including occupiers who "mic check" just about everybody who gets behind a podium. Police told Voice of San Diego that they added the conspiracy charges to the misdemeanors for disturbing a public assembly because the protesters had planned their actions in advance (Update: We hear the charges have since been dropped). There's some recent precedent for this in California, actually. Back in September, a group of 10 Muslim students were found guilty of conspiracy for heckling the Israeli ambassador. The takeaway here: If you're going to shout down somebody's speech in California, you'd better do it spontaneously.
Amplified Sound: That very Occupy trademark, the human microphone, actually stems from a fairly obscure New York statute against using amplified sound without a permit. In the very early days of Occupy Wall Street, police arrested a protester on amplified sound charges for using a bullhorn in Zuccotti Park. After that, protesters started relaying announcements to each other by shouting them as a group, a technique they called the human microphone. To get everybody ready to participate, the leader yells "mic check" and all the participants yell back "mic check." When you get a group of thousands doing it, as happened when protesters retook Zuccotti Park on Nov. 15, it's a hell of a lot louder than a bullhorn.
Grand Theft and Criminal Mischief: Another charge that, in itself isn't all that obscure, grand theft has been applied pretty liberally by New York police officers. Oliver told us he's defending one client charged with grand theft for taking a police officer's hat, and another who tried to take a police officer's badge while he was getting arrested. Another, Oliver said, was accused of stealing an NYPD captain's cell phone. The protester says he found it on the ground. When the captain called the number, the protester answered and said where he was so the captain could get his phone back, Oliver said. When police came, they arrested him for stealing it. As for criminal mischief, Oliver said one of his clients, a National Lawyers Guild observer named Ari Douglas, faces the charge after a police officer on a scooter ran into him during an Occupy protest. At it's most serious, criminal mischief is a felony that can lead to 25 years in prison, writes law blogger Amy Gertler. Watch out for scooters!
*Note: We originally cited a total arrest figure from the Occupy Arrests Twitter stream, but that seems to be slightly out of date. Occupy Arrests says it only lists arrests that "at least two credible sources" report.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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