Tuesday, February 22, 2005

New York: Where the Police State Has a Sense of Humor 

If you've spent much time in Union Square in the last, oh, couple years, this article is damn funny.

Mr. Blank was on trial for refusing to get up from a front row bench in a courtroom. The row, as court enthusiasts know, is reserved for police officers and lawyers. Mr. Blank, however, was representing himself in a case related to a protest and argued that he should be allowed to remain. A court officer disagreed, and Mr. Blank was charged with attempted criminal contempt.

Mr. Blank, 30, a gadfly of the city's criminal justice system, is perhaps best known as one of the leaders of discussion sessions held three times a week in Union Square Park. His arrest in the bench dispute and subsequent trial was a chance for him to be heard on some of his favorite topics: police states and higher-power conspiracies.

Last week, the court was a reluctant but captive audience. In four full days of trial, Mr. Blank held forth on everything from American settlers to a secret plot by the head judge to destroy him. Judge Ferrara listened, his face strained but his tone polite.


The defendant, his shoulder-length hair tied in a ponytail and his slightly rumpled suit jacket hooked behind a blue plastic comb that poked out of his right back pocket, said, "Judge, bear with me. If I can --"

"I will no longer bear with you," the judge said in a controlled tone. "I have been bearing with you for four days. Finish your testimony."

At another point, Judge Ferrara rebuked Mr. Blank for "flipping through papers and fumbling and not speaking."

But Mr. Blank, who frequently rummaged in a blue canvas bag stuffed with a legal pad, file folders and various plastic bags, absolutely refused to be rushed.

"I have case law on this," he said. "It's in my bag. By the time I find it I won't be able to finish my speech. It's called ... Oh, I can't remember."

Problems with organization continually dogged Mr. Blank. For example, he was not allowed to call a witness from the audience because he had not gotten her full name.

"What is her last name?" Judge Ferrara asked.

"Her name is Lauren," Mr. Blank replied.

"Lauren what?" the judge asked.

"I don't know her last name," Mr. Blank said.

"Denied," the judge said.

Some of the back and forth was a legal primer. The judge at times instructed Mr. Blank, who had spent hours in a law library in Brooklyn preparing for his case, on procedure.

"You can't take it back," Judge Ferrara said, when Mr. Blank wanted to strike something he had said, while being questioned as a witness. "You put it on the record."

Mr. Blank attempted another tack: "Well, withdrawn."

"You can't withdraw testimony," the judge said. "You are testifying."

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