Casino-Free protesters found not guilty

Feb. 16, 2010
By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Thirteen of the Philadelphians arrested last September after locking arms in front of the SugarHouse Casino entrance were found not guilty on all charges Tuesday. 

Each had been charged with criminal conspiracy, which is a felony, failure to disperse and disorderly conduct, both misdemeanors. The protest was arranged by Casino-Free Philadelphia.

“It’s a victory for the defendants and a victory for us,” said Casino-Free spokesman Dan Hajdo. “But we also think it’s a victory for the city and anti-casino movements all over the country.”

The trial before Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Patrick Dugan began at about 11 a.m. at the Criminal Justice Center on Filbert Street and ended just after 2 p.m.

The protestors were prepared to read statements about why they stood on the sidewalk in front of the SugarHouse entrance before sun-up, but never got the chance to do so.

After Assistant District Attorney Stacy Hughes presented her case, which included a video of the event, the protestors’ attorney, Larry Krasner, said he asked the judge to make a decision without hearing from the defendants.

“The way the law is written, if your intention was not to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, then you are not guilty,” Krasner said in a telephone interview after the proceeding. He argued that even if the court believed all the points in the Commonwealth’s case, that was not enough to require a defense. He said it was clear from what the protestors were saying and even the slogans on their shirts that their intent was not to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.

The judge granted the motion, ending the trial, without comment, Krasner said.

“Our purpose for being there was not to be a danger to the health or safety of other people,” said Ramona Johnson, 66, of Queen Village, who is one of the acquitted. “Our purpose was to educate people about what our position was. And let people know that citizens can make a difference and take a stand and try to influence their legislators.”

On the day of the protest, participants stood on the public sidewalk, blocking an entrance to SugarHouse. Delivery trucks with pilings were already inside the construction site.

Police told the participants they would receive several warnings, and then arrests would start. The police even gently helped some of the older protestors get up off the curb before putting on handcuffs that looked like giant plastic cable ties.

SugarHouse had no comment Tuesday after the decision.

Johnson said she was very pleased to be acquitted, yet a little disappointed that she didn’t get to read her statement about how much she loves her neighborhood, and how much she fears any neighborhood with a casino nearby would face problems. She plans to continue fighting the casinos, she said. “I don’t feel like we’re finished yet.”

Hughes referred a call for comment to Tasha Jamerson, the DA’s director of communications.  “We respect the court’s decision,” Jamerson said.

The 14th arrested protestor did not appear in court, having taken an accelerated rehabilitative disposition – or ARD, Krasner said.

Hajdo said that the not-guilty verdicts show that protests are a viable way for activists to fight casinos. “In a system where our elected representatives haven’t really been representing us, we still have a way of fighting these casinos with direct action,” he said.

Hajdo’s comment about a lack of representation refers to the history of casinos in Philadelphia. For example, state lawmakers legalized casinos in the middle of the night on a holiday weekend and few people knew it was happening. Some local and state elected officials have tried to take some action regarding casinos, mostly aimed at moving them off of the city’s waterfront and/or away from neighborhoods. But they have been unsuccessful.

The defendants ranged in age from 25 to 72 and include several grandparents, two members of the clergy, a few public school teachers, and veterans of the civil rights movement. To learn more about them and their reasons for getting involved, read the biographies prepared by Casino-Free Philadelphia.

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Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

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