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Lessons From Occupy Wall Street’s First Political Prisoner

Mark Adams’ short but excessive sentence is, for many, an introduction to the risks of dissent.

A demonstrator does jail support after the Occupy Wall Street "silent march" in New York City on June 17, 2012. (Photo: Terence McCormack)

Mark Adams’ short but excessive sentence is, for many, an introduction to the risks of dissent.

While media pundits sound out death knells for Occupy, many committed participants are now facing harsh consequences for their involvement. Mark Adams, a long-term fixture in New York’s Occupy Wall Street community, woke up this morning in Riker’s Island prison, where last week he began a 45-day sentence and earned the unenviable title as Occupy’s first sentenced political prisoner.

Of course, the imprisonment of political activists dates back as long as any carceral system. For many Occupy supporters, however, the unpermitted encampments, street marches and building occupations of the last nine months were a first foray into the sort of direct action that lands you at the blunt end of a police baton, the right side of history, but sometimes, the inside of a cage.

“It’s been really jarring for most of us,” said Tess Cohen, 25, a longtime Occupy participant in New York who has been helping organize support for Adams. Adams was convicted last week of trespassing, criminal mischief and criminal possession of burglary tools during an Occupy action last year. “There are people who’ve been in activism for a long time and have some experience with friends in prison. For those of us who have not – myself included – this has been a really traumatic experience,” Cohen added.

Adams, along with seven others, was found guilty of trespassing on public space privately owned by Trinity Church – one of the largest landowners in New York City. On December 17, the eight were part of a large crowd that surged into the empty Duarte Square lot, climbing over and under the eight-foot chain-link fence to occupy the space. Having been evicted from their Zuccotti Park base the month before, Occupiers had asked Trinity Church to allow an encampment in the vacant Duarte Square space. When the church refused, activists decided to take the lot nonetheless in protest of the church’s refusal to make use of their unused property to provide shelter. Lawyers acting in defense of those charged argued that signs around Duarte Square pronounced the space to be public. Seven of the defendants found guilty of trespass were given four days community service and fines; Adams’ extra charges earned him a prison sentence. The presiding judge sentenced Adams to 15 days longer than the 30 days asked for by the prosecution and cited the foundational importance of private property in his ruling against the so-called D17 defendants.

Many of New York’s OWS stalwarts quickly sprung into action to develop a support network for Adams, organizing letter writing and visitation plans for their well-loved comrade, distinct with his thick black beard, bald head and broad smile. A number of anarchists and activists have been keen to point out, however, that Adams’ short sentence should not overshadow attention and support for political prisoners languishing for years in US prisons, with limited access to outside contact and solidarity networks.

“I’m very saddened by [Adams’] sentencing, but realize that if you are to continue with this struggle, this is just the beginning … There have been many, long before Adams, with much harsher sentencing,” wrote New York-based activist Joe Lupo on Twitter, in response to some of the tribute Twitter feeds and Tumblr sites set up for Adams.

A spokesperson from New York Anarchist Black Cross Federation (NYC ABC), which organizes letter writing and support networks for political prisoners, emphasized that solidarity does not equate to making martyrs or heroes of those incarcerated: “They are folks, just like the rest of us, who the state wants to tear away from their communities in hopes of scaring everyone away from fighting for what they believe.”

Earlier this month, NYC ABC organized a fundraising karaoke night for two activists, whose long-term prison sentences are thought by many to be politically motivated, and underline Lupo’s point. Eco-activist Marie Mason is three years into a 22-year sentence for arson and property damage aimed toward targets in the fur industry and genetically modified crop research. Mason’s lawyer called 22 years an “excessively harsh” sentence, even for serial arson, in which, importantly, no individuals were injured or killed. The Guardian UK’s Suzanne Goldberg wrote that the case was “a prime example” of courts using “domestic terrorism laws to stiffen the punishment for politically inspired violence” since 9/11.

The NYC ABC event also raised money for environmentalist Eric McDavid, sentenced to 20 years in 2008 for conspiring to use fire or explosives to damage corporate and government property. McDavid, along with a small group of eco-activists infiltrated by an FBI informant, allegedly planned to sabotage the Nimbus Dam and other targets considered threatening to the environment. McDavid’s defense continues to claim entrapment by the FBI. Will Potter, author of “Green is the New Red,” about how animal rights and environmental activists came to be targeted by authorities as terrorists, wrote that McDavid’s sentence was “shocking enough, considering that the average sentence for violent offenders, in 2004, was about 7.6 years.”

The fundraiser was well attended by longtime New York anarchists well acquainted with cases like Mason’s and McDavid’s, however, many Occupy mainstays for whom the issue of politically motivated prison sentencing may become increasingly relevant were absent.

Indeed, a handful of Occupy supporters who headed to Chicago last month to protest the NATO summit now face domestic terror charges in a case that smacks of entrapment to many legal experts and long-term activists. Heidi Boghosian, director of the National Lawyers Guild, noted that “the ‘war on terror’ lowered the bar for conspiracy charges. As a result, activists may face terrorism indictments which come with sentencing enhancements and jury pools tainted by media hype. In political cases, the objective of the prosecution is often the vilification of the accused as much as it is obtaining a conviction.”

Boghosian points out that such villainization of activists is already at play in the case of the NATO 3 – three protesters arrested in Chicago, who face, as the she put it, “a litany of never-before-used Illinois state terrorism charges based on secret evidence and grand jury proceedings.” The activists’ defense lawyer, Michael Deutsch, has called the charges “fabricated” and “based on police informants and provocateurs which is a common pattern that we have seen against people who are protesting.”

Whether the title “Occupy” is maintained or not, the desire for political and social upheaval that underpinned Occupy actions and affinities has not been extinguished. In consequence, those radicalized by Occupy may come to know many more political prisoners than Adams in the months and years to come. Gideon Oliver, head of the National Lawyers Guild’s New York chapter and who acted on the defense team for the D17 defendants, noted that there is both a “crisis and an opportunity” in coming to realize how the criminal justice system harshly treats dissent. “The opportunity is to learn about solidarity, to learn from the past and to learn about how other movements have survived,” he said.

Few people know this lesson quite like Andy Stepanian, a political activist, artist and publisher who spent three years in a federal prison following the landmark SHAC 7 (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) case in 2006. Stepanian, along with five others, was convicted of conspiracy charges for using a web site to incite attacks on those doing business with animal testing laboratories, Huntingdon Life Sciences. The web site, however, gave no specific directives for acts of violence to any specific individuals, and thus should have been protected as political speech, argued the defense to no avail. Stepanian is now able to speak at length about the importance of jail support to political activism, noting that “jail is traumatic no matter how long or short a sentence is,” but that while organizing letter writing, visits, funds and phone-ins, he said, “it is also important to make sure to never lose sight of the reasons why that activist went to jail in the first place. The fight should never go to prison with the prisoner, therefore supporters must vow to not only pick up the torch in the prisoner’s absence, but take it a step further by doubling-down on their efforts to make sure that the cause for which she/he went to prison does not fall by the wayside in their absence.”

Adams announced last week that he is on hunger strike, drinking only juice, and plans to remain so throughout his sentence. Some consider this an extreme move for his comparatively brief jail time, but others see Adams’ choice as a tactic to draw attention to prisoners facing longer sentences for whom collective hunger strikes are sometimes the only leverage to improve harsh conditions. Later this week, an OWS “community dialogue” will take place in Lower Manhattan to expand support for Adams “into an exploration of how our community can confront the broader injustice of the prison industrial complex,” according to the event announcement.

“We miss and love Mark, but we’ll get him back soon,” said Shawn Carrie, a well-known figure in OWS circles, adding, “but people are really making the connections between what’s happened to Mark and other political prisoners, and the entire prison industrial complex.”

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