Trinity Church, a massive New York landowner with an estimated $1 billion in real estate holdings, is once again at odds with Occupy Wall Street, the movement that sprung up in its back yard.
The relationship between Trinity and Occupy has been fraught almost from the start, but tensions escalated last winter, after the NYPD evicted Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park, when protesters asked the church for sanctuary in an unused church-owned plot in Duarte Square.
The church refused, and on December 17, the protesters, led by clergy including retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, jumped the chain-link fence anyway, prompting dozens of arrests.
Many of those arrested that day are scheduled for trial next Monday, June 11, charged either with violation-level trespass or with criminal trespass in the third degree, a charge which can carry three months of jail time.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which so far has had little success in prosecuting the thousands of Occupy Wall Street arrests made by police in the last eight months, appears to be focusing its energies on securing convictions in the December 17 arrests. Defense attorneys say that prosecutors appear to be giving the December 17 cases special attention. They have rescinded offers of ACDs, Adjournments in Contemplation of Dismissal, made to some of the defendants earlier, and are preparing for trial.
Facing the possibility of a 90-day stint at Rikers, Occupiers are once more asking the church to cut them some slack.
Trinity has responded to emails on the subject with the following statement:
Trinity does not have the legal ability to drop charges. Those cases are being prosecuted by the District Attorney’s office. However, Trinity has contacted the District Attorney’s office and has been advised that the District Attorney has offered non-criminal dispositions without fines or incarceration to all those defendants who were arrested and charged with trespassing for simply being present at Duarte Square.”
Gideon Oliver of the National Lawyers Guild says this statement is misleading on several counts. For one thing, while many of those arrested were offered and have declined Adjournments in Contemplation of Dismissal, not all of them have. For another, its disingenuous for Trinity to claim it has no control over the outcome in these cases. Sure, the District Attorney is in charge of the prosecution, but without the testimony of the church’s lawyer, Amy Jedlicka, prosecutors would have no case.
Protesters launched a picket outside yesterday’s service, carrying signs that read “Forgive us our trespasses,” “Who would Jesus Prosecute?” and “Trinity Wall Street: Real Estate Company or Church?”
Also on hand was Jack Boyle, a 56-year-old New Yorker on the 11th day of a hunger strike and the 15th day of his HIV-medication strike. “I’m going to keep this going until the church stops trying to send us to jail,” Boyle said.
Some in the movement have quietly questioned the wisdom of deploying such a dramatic and dangerous tactic over what ultimately amounts to a third-degree issue for Occupy: dropping charges stemming from an effort to secure space in which to organize against corporate control and economic inequality. But Boyle and his supporters counter that yesterday’s demonstration was less about getting protesters off the hook for the consequences of their civil disobedience, and more about exposing the hypocrisy of a church that bears more than a passing resemblance to its corporate neighbors in the Financial District.
When a list of the church’s vestry leaked last winter, it included executives of Brookfield Properties, AIG, Citigroup, and BNP Paribas. That roster was shaken up this past March, however, when 10 of the 22 vestry members quit. The walkout was only the latest round of turmoil under the leadership of Trinity’s rector James Cooper.
Press accounts make Cooper sound like the modern Episcopal version of a Borgia pope. He received compensation of $1.3 million in 2010, awarded himself the supplementary title of CEO, and picked out a $5.5 million SoHo townhouse for himself, paid for by the church. And his Scroogely actions extend well beyond stiff-arming Occupy Wall Street: he shuttered Trinity’s homeless drop-in center in 2009, then announced plans to borrow church money to build luxury condos on top of a palatial renovation of the church’s offices.
Cooper’s excesses were too much even for some of his high-flying vestry, and they asked him to resign. When he refused, many quit. They’ve since been replaced by members more aligned with Cooper’s way of doing things.
That doesn’t bode well for protesters’ hopes the church will ask the District Attorney to call off the prosecutions.
“This situation exemplifies how, in a system built on profit, everything ties back to the greed of Wall Street, even Trinity Church” said Brett Goldberg, one of the organizers of yesterday’s protest. “We have people who might go to Rikers for standing somewhere for a few minutes. Trinity could make that stop. We hope they do.”