This morning in my class at the Jesuit School of Theology on “Jesuit Priesthood: Theory and Praxis,” our opening prayer included the following verses from Psalm 142: “When my spirit grows faint within me,/You know my way;/ In the path where I walk, /they have hidden a trap for me.”
Only an hour earlier, in a far different locale, I had watched while a fellow Jesuit and classmate of mine, Joseph Hoover, S.J., was found guilty by a jury of his peers in a courtroom at the Wiley Manuel Courthouse in Oakland, CA, for the crime of “obstructing a public thoroughfare.” His alleged (I suppose now confirmed) sin was that he did not get out of the way quickly enough at an Occupy Oakland rally and march two months ago in Oakland, Calif, when a charging line of Oakland Police Department officers in riot gear ran at him. That the arresting officer had quite clearly beaten Joe with his baton (the officer who hit him looked Joe and the jury in the face and perjured himself—I know his testimony to be a lie, since I saw the bruises myself the night I picked Joe up from jail) seemed to sway the jury from convicting Joe of a second charge: obstructing a law enforcement officer in the performance of his duties. That charge, it turns out, cannot be considered proved if the arresting officer uses excessive force. Joe himself took the stand and testified he had no intention of obstructing anyone—that he was an unarmed man in a Roman collar walking away from the police—but it made no difference as to the first charge, and Joe was found guilty. Of that, at least.
Joe should have been found innocent of all charges—if he was guilty, then so am I, and a number of other peers who have participated in actions with Occupy Cal and Occupy Oakland over the past year, in the name of solidarity with the protests and civil disobedience; and I could name a dozen of my classmates who participated to one degree or another—but he was also unlucky. On the day of his arrest, he donned his clerical shirt, climbed on his bike, and rode from Holy Hill down to Oakland to show his solidarity with the 99 percent—those whom, in another tradition, are called the anawim. He happened to run into an aggressive and violent officer on a violent day, and as a result, the unjustified attack on his person was followed by three days in the Alameda County Jail. He was released to us “on his own recognizance,” a process that took the judge two minutes to approve and the sheriffs at the jail seven hours to carry out. That experience has been followed by two months of seemingly endless court appearances, or at least ten; one thing I will tell you is that I now know four of the bailiffs by name, and I am not even the one who was arrested.
Joe has had no criminal record; Joe was, according even to the arresting officer, completely compliant with the authorities at and after his arrest. But now he’s guilty, and next week we’ll go back for sentencing.
The whole experience left me angry but educated in new ways about the justice system. Below are some of my own reflections from that experience. I speak only for myself, not for this magazine nor for Joe nor for the Society of Jesus.
- 1. The ladder of the law has a top and a bottom. Justice is blind, but the legal system is rigged in favor of the wealthy. Don’t think so? Two misdemeanor charges for Joe required ten court appearances over sixty days. Joe is a seminarian, and so had to miss some classes and apostolic work (and, the lucky devil, one Jesuit “community night” while he was jailed), so he never had to call in sick from work or arrange for day care or explain why he had been missing for three days. Nor did he have to board three or four buses to get to the courthouse. He, like me, is one of the privileged few. There were plenty—hundreds—at the courthouse in our every visit who suffered a different fate, regardless of their guilt. What if you’re innocent—but by the time you’re found innocent, you’ve skipped nine days of work? Might that affect your job performance review? Might you be in danger of losing your job or the respect of your colleagues? And might that affect your decision to accept a plea bargain as a result?
- 2. Justice is not should not be vengeance. Are you related to a law enforcement officer, or a district attorney, or a lawyer or judge of any stripe? If so, ask that person the last time it was necessary to bring a charge of “obstructing a public thoroughfare” to trial—to call sixty jurors, to impanel twelve, to spend a week in court, all to find a man guilty of not moving out of the way of a skirmish line of baton-swinging police fast enough. Joe was made an example and a symbol by the police and the district attorney; he was instrumentalized as a public statement that free and peaceful assembly, while guaranteed by the First Amendment to the nation’s constitution, is verboten in Occupied Oakland. The police in Oakland have been made to look ridiculous by their own violent and illegal actions over the past six months, and now the Occupiers will be made to pay…until the day the Oakland Police Department is taken into receivership.
- 3. Occupy is just a four- letter word. I heard it used in this trial as a noun, a verb, an adjective, and almost every time as a slur. The prosecutor, in her closing argument, used “Occupy” perhaps thirty or forty times. Why? Because “those people” are easily bracketed as the unwashed masses demanding anarchy and/or a free handout, and they are, in the legal system, nonpersons—or threats. I myself witnessed a bailiff (who was otherwise, I admit, a perfect gentleman over five days of legal proceedings) look out at the audience one day and loudly call for backup, on the grounds that “I have fifteen or so Occupiers here.” The audience was composed of Jesuit seminarians, theology students from Berkeley, interested lawyers, idealistic supporters, and one dismissed juror who thought this was worth sticking around to watch as long as he had the day off work anyway. I wouldn’t be on a softball team with those folks, much less storm a courtroom with them. But the jury heard it; this is an Occupy trial. Not a police brutality trial, not an exercise in overreach by the DA; not state vengeance disguised as justice; an Occupy trial.
- 4. Folks take pride in the strangest things. I am proud of all those from the Jesuit School of Theology--and their names are legion, for they were many--who came to the courtroom to support Joe and to give witness against legal and economic injustice. I am proud of his fellow protestors—many of them wounded, tired, or facing charges themselves—who showed up to give their support. Most of all, I am proud of Joe. Maybe they’ll give him time served, for the three days he spent in Glenn Dyer Jail. Maybe one day his conviction could be expunged from his record. Maybe Occupy means nothing. But maybe not. And maybe one day justice will be done, though the heavens fall.“When my spirit grows faint within me, You know my way; In the path where I walk, they have hidden a trap for me. Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me.”