DENVER, COLORADO- In the witness stand Delbert “DJ” Razee spoke eloquently about the Tiny House movement and Resurrection Village, a local experiment sponsored by advocates Denver Homeless Out Loud to suggest one remedy for the house-less of Colorado. Razee’s lawyer Frank Ingham made fools of the Denver Housing Authority stooge and four police officers who testified against the chronically homeless English Lit grad. Razee was charged with trespass on public land, on an empty city block which was supposed to have been used for affordable housing. Razee was among ten homeless activists arrested one night in November for refusing to vacate several very small structures they’d erected on property which the DHA was converting from a community garden to gentrified condos. After two days of trial, a jury of well-housed peers found Razee guilty, lest others of his untouchable caste darken their doorsteps or the vacant lots near them. On Thursday March 3rd at 8:30am DJ Razee reports to Judge Beth Faragher for sentencing.
It was an amazing trial. While his compatriots sought continuances or plea deals, DJ held his ground and never waived speedy trial. DJ was impatient to put the Denver Housing Authority on the stand. Their representative Ryan Tobin blew off a February 3rd subpoena, but when DJ’s lawyer Frank Ingham cross-examined Tobin on the 22nd, Tobin incriminated himself more than Razee. Ryan Tobin was the DHA goon who pressed charges against the activists for trespassing on the public lot opposite his $650K home. Tobin also sought a protection order against one of the activists, which restrained that person from approaching not just Tobin but the entire public lot. Can one do that? The protection order didn’t come up at DJ’s trial.
The DHA is a quasi-municipal entity which handles city property meant to accomodate lower income residents. The DHA is Denver’s second largest property owner. The city blocks at 26th and Lawrence used to be low income housing but have been razed for years. More recently a portion was used for a community garden but the DHA was evicting the urban farmers to sell the block to a high rise developer.
The logic offered was that DHA could use the proceeds of land speculation to build more affordable housing elsewhere. That strategy might impress business people but it’s clearly absurd. Instead of being a counterbalance to gentrification, this housing authority thinks its role is to be a tool for displacement.
Tobin’s testimony will benefit all the Tiny House defendants, depending on their juries. DJ is only the first of the arrestees to be brought to trial. Tobin admitted he had never clearly expressed who had the authority to issue a trespass order. Tobin also couldn’t say who precisely was present when he made his initial announcement to the group, although he claimed it was “everyone”. This was a chief contention of the city attorneys.
How about an sidebar for activists, as a sort of debrief:
On Tobin’s first visit, someone among the activists called EVERYONE together to listen to his announcement, austensibly to have a dialog. As a matter of practice this was regretable. First, because the action was already underway and there was no expectation that dialog could or should redirect the action. Second, it presented exactly what an authority issuing a formal notice needed: everyone in one place to BE GIVEN NOTICE.
Two, the city prosecutors used a video recording of the event, made by the activists themselves, to prove that the trespassers had received notice. While the taped discussion was not so clear, and the many subsequent announcements over police bullhorns were garbled, it didn’t help that the videographer offered narration to make what was being said explicit to viewers and bystanders. Offering, for example: “so basically we’ve been given notice that if we don’t leave the cops will come to arrest us.” Which alas is the confirmation prosecutors need that lawful orders were understood.
Although the city sought to incriminate Razee with the video, the footage provided wonderful context for the larger issue, the paradox faced by the homeless, had the jury been receptive. It also captured Ryan Tobin’s cavalier attitude about housing inequities. When he was asked by the group “Move along to where?” Tobin made this thoughtless suggestion: “Where did you come from?” Boos from his audience at the scene were echoed by the viewers in the courtroom.
Ryan Tobin couldn’t identify DJ at all, neither that he’d given DJ notice to leave, nor that he’d ever seen DJ before in his life. DJ described Tobin’s failure to recognize him in a FB post:
For six weeks, from October 23rd until December 9th, I shoveled the walks, carted away the trash, and resided at Resurrection Village at the same location as Sustainability Park, and Ryan Tobin who lives directly across the street from the property, testified that he has never seen my face. Of course, he hadn’t- I am one of the invisible people who is a criminal in the eyes of the housed, and the law.
The testimony of four DPD officers was also self-damning. Neither commander, nor lieutenants, nor arresting officer could fully justify why they deployed in combat gear. Even the jurors were set back by the militarized atmosphere, the helicopter overhead, and the overabundance of cops for a TRESPASS INFRACTION. About the helicopter, a lieutenant claimed she called in a mere “fly-by” but police video proved it hovered for nearly an hour.
One amusing aspect for many of us in the audience, was how the DPD witnesses would always refer to the offending activists as “Occupiers”. Denver Homeless Out Loud, in its need to gain cooperation with civic and law enforcement entities, takes great pains to distance itself from its roots in Occupy Denver. At any demonstration in Denver, an “Occupy” presence, usually merely the familiar OD faces, always means an escalated police escort and unseen armored-up reserves. While it may have been inaccurate to label the Tiny House trespassers as occupiers, it’s true that when protesters are holding their ground in Denver, refusing police orders, they are occupying. Like the Black Bloc, it’s not a who, it’s a tactic.
Attending the trials of activists is worth it if only to hear the testimony of the police. You learn what they’re trained to do, what their objectives are, and what they think you’re doing. Most officers, even commanders, think we need a permit to demonstrate. HA!
The first four witnesses could not place DJ at the scene, but the arresting officer finally fingered the accused. Asked if he could identify DJ, he pointed to the defendant’s table and described DJ’s courtroom attire for the record. You have to wonder if police witnesses look to the defendant’s chair by default, without regard to what they remember. How could they remember so many arrestees, months after the incident? I’m guessing that anyone sitting in DJ’s seat would have been ID’d as DJ.
I pose this question because of how DJ’s arresting officer was allowed to identify DJ on the crime scene video. Instead of letting the video play through and asking the officer if DJ appeared on the video and where, DJ’s prosecutors froze the video when the camera lingered on DJ and then asked the officer to ID him. The defense counsel objected vehemently and when overruled he motioned for a mistrial. So the judge reconsidered and granted Ingham’s motion. She then asked the jury to disregard the officer’s response and she made the prosecutor play the video again without prompting the officer, even though of course now he knew at which frame DJ appeared.
The entire trial was so farcical and so mercenary considering the inconsequence of the charge, that audience members were certain the jury was empathic to DJ and the victimization of Denver’s homeless. Nope. We knew from Voir Dire that the jury included an entrepreneur, a trader, and an inheritance consultant. All but one of the NPR listeners had been eliminated but we hoped she’d be a holdout. It was not to be. When the jury emerged with its verdict, the foreman carrying the written decision was the fratboy day trader.
Fratboy had been the juror submitting written questions to supplement what neither attorney had asked. We knew from the bent of his inquiries that he was playing a role that defense attorneys fear, a self-deputized investigator for the prosecutor, filling in the gaps of the testimony, seeking, if even unconsciously, to eliminate the “reasonable doubt” which is supposed to remain as a reason to aquit. That’s why defense attorneys generally object to Colorado’s rule allowing jurors to interject with their own questions to witnesses. On the plus side, such questions do offer both sides a hint of where those jurors are leaning.
As Denver gentrifies, it should be no surprise that juries will represent the affluent more than the demographics being displaced. DJ’s jury had absolutely zero concern for punishing a homeless man for his elegant protest gesture or for his unresolved circumstance. They laughed and made no eye contact with the audience as they turned their backs to return to their homes and leave a homeless man in greater jeopardy with the penal system.
DJ was not tried by a jury of his peers. Can the homeless get justice in the US court system? American juries are racist and classist, but you’re unlikely to find someone more untouchable to jurors than someone who is dispossessed.
As activists, we’ve got to do something about these Denver juries. Advocating for jury nullification is not enough. Denver’s urban social climbers need a welcome-to-the-community brochure, or swift kicks in the ass until they acknowledge there’s a brotherhood of man.