NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In a single trial combined in the interests of "judicial efficiency," two co-defendants charged with obstructing a city street during a protest received different verdicts from Judge Mary Casey.
Tormel Pittman, the leader of the demonstration was found guilty of violating the city ordinance. He was sentenced to pay a $403 fine, and has opted not to appeal the verdict.
Just a few minutes earlier, Judge Casey found Gabriella Aron, age 20, not guilty of the same crime.
The city was in a bad place last September. Following a controversial killing on an unarmed man named Barry Deloatch, daily street protests became a popular outlet for city residents and other community members to voice their concerns.
Meanwhile, in New York City's Zuccotti Park, the Occupy movement picked up steam with protests that escalated simultaneously to the Deloatch protests in New Brunswick.
For the first eight days, New Brunswick officers largely gave demonstrators the benefit of the doubt as they took to the streets.
But on the ninth day of protests, New Brunswick Police changed their tune and no longer communicated with protest leaders regarding traffic concerns. Instead, Seargent Raymond Trigg ordered demonstrators not to venture onto streets at all, under penalty of arrest.
The request was ignored as the demonstrators took the intersection of Commercial Avenue and George Street. There, they quietly prayed for justice for the victim of the police killing.
A separate group, riding bicylces as part of a monthly group ride called Critical Mass, stumbled upon the demonstration and many joined the protest as it marched on towards the site of Barry Deloatch's killing.
At the corner of Handy Street and Throop Avenue, the group gathered on the sidewalk as Pittman spoke to the crowd through a bullhorn. Video shot by NewBrunswickToday.com shows Pittman speaking about police allegedly slicing through a window screen to remove a poster of the deceased.
Suddenly, dozens of police officers dressed in riot gear descended on the intersection ordering everyone onto the sidewalk.
Pittman was promptly arrested, despite being on the sidewalk. He went quietly as the crowd shouted at the officers.
As demonstrators crowded the corner sidewalk, one of the Critical Mass cyclists found herself at odds with the aggressive officers.
Aron, a Rutgers student who was 19 at the time, refused to move her bicycle onto the sidewalk. She was arrested by three police officers while two more attempted to block the view of members of the public, many of whom were recording the incident.
Back at the station, officers charged Pittman with obstructing the intersection at George and Commercial, even though they snatched him up nearly 20 minutes later at a different corner.
Aron's charge was for obstructing traffic at Handy and Throop, where video shows her and her bicycle were only about 12 inches into the street. She was arrested by four officers.
Ironically, the incident came at a time when the New Brunswick City Council was pushing a law that would ban bicycles from city sidewalks, as we reported in December.
Prosecutor Robert Goodwin presented the State's case against Pittman and Aron on March 15, including a lengthy video shot by the NBPD. Three months later, on June 11, the defense presented their case.
Allan Marain, a local attorney representing Pittman, argued his client did not obstruct the roadway according to the legal definition, meaning "renders impassable without unreasonable inconvenience or hazard."
Marain said the context in which the demonstration took place, "the shooting death of a young male by New Brunswick police," was important to note.
"The demonstrating was related to a matter of community concern," he said.
Pittman testified as a witness, saying his helping to organize peaceful protests stemmed partly from a fear of destructive riots.
"I felt that it was necessary. I needed to get invoved."
An unarmed man was shot by a New Brunswick police officer in 1991, Pittman said, referring to the killing of city resident Sean Potts. He said that community members responded to that killing by "vandalizing and looting in downtown."
"There was similar rhetoric and I felt that wouldn't be productive as a community so I organized peaceful protests."
NBPD Sgt. Raymond Trigg, who participated in the arrests, was called to testify. Trigg said that police "were exhausted trying to keep the peace" as the demonstrations entered their eighth day.
He confirmed that he had worked with Pittman to ensure the demonstrations brought minimal disruption to automobile traffic in the preceding days.
Linda Smink, representing Aron, argued it was not possible to render the roadway impassible because police officers had already done so.
"The police had blocked off the street. No traffic could go down that particular street because of the police vehicles that were in the way," she said.
Goodwin took exception to Smink's characterization of "about 20 police officers dressed in riot gear."
"The officers were in appropriate attire given the circumstances and what they were tasked with," he said.
Aron also testified on her own behalf and said of the officers, "They didn't really look like regular police. They were dressed differently, with more uniform on."
Aron said she moved her bike as close to the sidewalk as possible, but ultimately refused to move it onto the overcrowded sidewalk.
"She was a college student out for a ride," said her attorney. "She did not purposefully in any way try to obstruct traffic."
Ultimately, Goodwin did not push hard for a conviction against the Rutgers student and Judge Casey let Aron off the hook, finding her not guilty.
Marain argued that Pittman's demonstration was not an unreasonable inconvenience to motorists.
"A street closing in and of itself is not an inherently unreasonable incovnience. We know that because City Council approves street closings from time to time."
He also quoted a famous speech from the film The American President on the topic of free speech, including the line "America isn't easy."
"You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours," he quoted.
Marain added that actor Michael Douglas, who plays a fictional U.S. President in the film, was born in New Brunswick.
The prosecutor painted a different picture. Goodwin said police tolerated and accomodated "eight or so days of protests, approximately a dozen protests."
"Mr. Pittman purposely decided that he would not abide by the appropriate ground rules established by the City of New Brunswick's Police Department."
Goodwin said that Pittman selected the intersection of George and Commercial to enhance the impact of the demonstration.
"And he has a right to do that, but then is a cost associated."
Casey ultimately sided with Goodwin, and ruled that Pittman purposely violated the law to get attention for his cause.
She says she ruled partly based upon "the prior emotional response of Mr. Pittman for which he desires to have his voice be heard."
"You had a right to do what you wanted to do if you had done it in the proper way," she said.
Before he was sentenced, Pittman had the opportunity to address the court. All he said was, "I knew this was going to happen."
Casey responded, "You're a leader. With great power comes great responsibility," acknowledging the reference to the film Spiderman.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.