BNY Mellon, Occupy court hearing concludes

By Gwenn Barney

Members of the “99 percent” occupied the Allegheny County Courthouse Wednesday, urging… Members of the “99 percent” occupied the Allegheny County Courthouse Wednesday, urging Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Christine Ward to allow them to stay on the 10 percent of Mellon Green on which they currently reside Downtown.

Round 2 of the Occupy Pittsburgh and BNY Mellon judicial showdown concluded Wednesday just after 12:30 p.m. After the cross-examinations of three more witnesses — all either Occupy Pittsburgh members or supporters — Ward called an end to the preliminary injunction hearing, which will determine whether members of Occupy Pittsburgh may remain camped on the privately owned Mellon Green.

BNY Mellon ordered the Occupiers to vacate Mellon Green Dec. 11, but the headstrong campers decisively remained in their tents and claimed seizure of the park, renaming it The People’s Park. The next day, the bank filed an injunction against the Occupiers to prove the illegality of the Occupiers’ continued residence on the bank’s property. Their occupation began in mid-October.

Counsel for BNY Mellon and supporters of the Occupy movement filled every chair in the small courtroom. The fashion choices of the trial’s audience ranged from suits and ties to ripped jeans and T-shirts.

Most Occupiers seemed confident in the prospects for a possible spring-time trial. Occupier Mel Packer, who testified on the first day of the hearing, wore a smile almost as bright as his pink peace-sign button as he exited the court room.

“We looked good during the entire hearing,” he said.

Attorneys for BNY Mellon and Ron Gruendl, spokesman for BNY Mellon, declined comment following the hearing.

Both sides will file findings of fact for Ward to review before she makes her ruling.

Attorneys for both BNY Mellon and Occupy Pittsburgh have two weeks from the time the court releases transcriptions of the hearing to complete and submit their findings of fact. The date of those transcriptions’ availability is not immediately known.

If Ward decides Occupy Pittsburgh is lawful in its habitation of the park, then the case will go to trial. Either side can appeal the decision, a process that would allow the Occupiers to remain at the camp.

Pittsburgh’s branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement finds itself in a unique position. Members of the movement have claimed that Occupy Pittsburgh is the only branch of the larger protest to occupy a bank’s property, and it is also among the few movements that have avoided raids by police. Occupy camps in New York, Philadelphia, Oakland, Calif., and other cities across the U.S. have been raided or evicted by police.

Much of the discourse for the hearing’s second day centered on whether the Occupy camp is safe and whether Mellon Green should be treated as private property or an “urban open space.”

Robert Damewood, a member of the movement’s legal counsel, said the city’s zoning code dictates that 10 percent of BNY Mellon’s lot property must be set aside as an area open to the public.

Occupy argues that this 10 percent would include all of the land on which they camp. BNY Mellon counters that 10 percent of the regulated property only consists of a small portion of Mellon Green, primarily a set of steps, and that the remainder of the park is private property.

Paul O’Hanlon, an Occupy supporter and co-chair of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities, testified that the camp site is an urban open space and that the steps portion that BNY Mellon considers an urban open space is not handicap-accessible.

The serious issues addressed in the hearing were interspersed with moments of comic relief. At one point, after announcing that the prosecution would rest in its cross-examination of Occupier Don Carpenter, Dan Booker, the attorney representing BNY Mellon, retracted his statement announcing he had one more question.

“Because I can’t resist,” Booker said. “Can you tell me what an ‘occucuddle puddle’ is?”  The query referred to a tweet Carpenter had sent out from the camp one night.

The courtroom burst into laughter and Carpenter proceeded to inform the court that an occucuddle puddle is a nighttime gathering of Occupiers in a single tent to chat and spend time together.

Booker said his daughter used to participate in those, but she had called them pajama parties.

According to Pitt alumnus Stephen Fuegi, the attorney representing Occupy Pittsburgh, members of BNY Mellon’s legal team did not prove the criteria necessary for eviction of the Occupy camp. Fuegi said these criteria included proving the camp created dangerous conditions on the land or a detriment to the public good.

“I don’t think they were able to show irreparable harm,” Fuegi said. “We feel they have not met that burden. The court likely will not grant preliminary injunction, and then it will be set for trial.”