Occupy Wall Street protesters win legal victory in Brooklyn bridge arrests

Ruling clears the way for a class-action lawsuit by the roughly 700 protesters arrested on the bridge in October

Occupy protesters on Brooklyn bridge
Protesters on the Brooklyn bridge in October. A federal judge ruled protesters weren't sufficiently warned not to march over the bridge. Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

A federal judge has ruled that the NYPD failed to sufficiently warn Occupy Wall Street protesters against walking on the roadway of the Brooklyn bridge in October, resulting in the arrest of roughly 700 people.

After reviewing video footage from both parties, judge Jed S Rakoff of the federal district court in Manhattan sided with the protesters.

The arrests marked one of the most famous moments of the early stages of the Occupy protests, drawing international headlines and more participants to the movement.

Protesters alleged that police had led them onto the roadway, while police maintained that the demonstrators were sufficiently informed that walking on the area intended for vehicles would result in detention.

"A reasonable officer in the noisy environment defendants occupied would have known that a single bull horn could not reasonably communicate a message to 700 demonstrators," Rakoff wrote in his decision. Rakoff added that protesters "might infer permission to enter the vehicular roadway from the fact that officers, without offering further warnings, proceeded ahead of and alongside plaintiffs onto that roadway".

Protesters were offered "an implicit invitation to follow," the judge wrote.

The decision clears the way for a class-action lawsuit accusing police officers and officials involved in the arrests of violating the protesters' constitutional rights by leading them into a trap. The lawsuit calls for all arrest records stemming from the incident to be cleared, an injunction to end the police practice of trapping and detaining demonstrators, and damages to be awarded to those who were arrested.

The judge dismissed New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly as defendants in the suit, determining there was not sufficient evidence to prove either was responsible for police misconduct.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice and an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the suit, said: "We think it's a great victory for people that were arrested on the bridge and it really sends a strong message in defense of free speech rights."

Verheyden-Hilliard says matters of "notice and warning" are at the heart of the suit.

"The important thing here is really very much the narrative, because immediately after the arrests the police were saying the demonstrators knowingly violated the law and they knew that they were marching on the bridge," she said. "It was the police that closed the bridge. It was the police that led demonstrators onto the bridge. It was the police that blocked the bridge for hours to conduct these unlawful arrests."

Protester Hero Vincent was at the front of the march onto the bridge and was one of the 700 arrested that day. He believes the judge made the right decision.

"I didn't hear one time an officer say that we were going the wrong way or that we could go onto the bridge," he said. Vincent says about two dozen police walked beside and in front of demonstrators as they entered the roadway, giving the impression that they were being allowed to cross.

Vincent had been an active participant in Occupy Wall Street since its first day, and says it was a sense of common purpose that motivated him to attempt to cross the bridge with hundreds of others.

"I felt like being a part of the Occupy movement and seeing so many people standing in solidarity was definitely something I could be a part of," he said. "The message, at that time, was really getting across very well and it was inviting a lot of people from all different types of backgrounds."

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