School headquarters protesters acquitted

Posted: June 14, 2013

Sixteen people arrested in March for protesting the Philadelphia School Reform Commission's decision to close 23 schools were acquitted of disorderly conduct charges Thursday by a Municipal Court judge.

"I really do believe you went a little too far, locking arms and standing in front of a door like that," said Judge T. Francis Shields.

Still, Shields said, there was no evidence that any of the 16 blocked had doors to the auditorium at School District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St., as others had done.

Shields said he also empathized with the protesters. "I'm a resident of Philadelphia, and I have children in school." he said. "I'm frightened about what is happening."

The protesters were among 19 people arrested at the emotional meeting at which the SRC approved what appeared to be one of the largest mass school closings in U.S. history.

Three defendants - including Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers - opted not to go to trial, said defense attorney Lloyd Long III. The three admitted the charge and entered a program in which their arrests would eventually be expunged.

One of the 16, Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher active in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said, "What we did, a hundred more people need to be doing."

Whitehorne, 71, said the SRC's decisions meant children would go to schools in September that "don't resemble in any way where people go to learn."

Assistant District Attorney Gregory Engle presented a video of one protest as well as one witness: Lt. Joseph O'Brien of the police Civil Affairs Unit.

O'Brien testified that during the SRC meeting, three groups of protesters blocked the two sets of public doors to the auditorium and a side door used by the commissioners.

One group held a six-foot black tablecloth across one set of doors and a second group locked arms across another. A third group locked arms across the commissioners' entrance.

No one spoke, O'Brien testified, although one person in one group nodded in assent when asked if he understood they would be arrested if they did not move from the doors. No one resisted arrest, O'Brien added.

Four defense attorneys - Long, Michael Bernard Lee, Giovanni O. Campbell, and Lawrence S. Krasner - represented the demonstrators free. The defense argued that the demonstrators were exercising their First Amendment rights and questioned how their conduct could be considered disorderly.

O'Brien conceded that he had no evidence that anyone had been prevented from entering or leaving the auditorium.

Engle argued that all could be found guilty of disorderly conduct because their behavior was reckless and could have endangered people in an emergency.

The judge ruled based on identification - or the lack of it.

O'Brien was able to identify 11 of the 16 as present that night, and Shields dismissed the case against the other five.

When Krasner argued that O'Brien had not testified that any of the 11 were among those blocking the doors, the judge also dismissed those counts.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @joeslobo.

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