20 activists on trial in New York for protesting racial profiling

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NEW YORK (AP) — Twenty activists who converged on a police station to protest a controversial police technique went on trial Monday in a case that they hoped would highlight their cause but prosecutors called a simple matter of breaking the law.

The demonstrators, who include ministers, local activists and Princeton University scholar and civil rights advocate Cornel West, lined three rows of courtroom seats in one of the biggest group trials of protesters in the city in recent years. Supporters waited in line for spots.

The demonstrators were arrested on disorderly conduct charges in October outside a Harlem police station while decrying the New York Police Department’s practice of stopping, questioning and sometimes frisking people who are acting suspiciously or meet crime suspects’ descriptions, according to police.

Police say the practice has proven vital to curbing crime. Opponents say it amounts to racial profiling and unfairly targets innocent people.

“The system is breaking the spirit of too many young people,” West, a professor of African-American studies and the author of books including “Race Matters,” said outside court. “We were willing to be arrested, and we’re willing to go to jail.”

Prosecutors said the demonstrators deliberately crossed the line between legally protesting and disorderly conduct by obstructing a sidewalk and the stationhouse entrance and shrugging off repeated orders to move. Defense lawyers said the group was exercising constitutional rights and didn’t actually bar anyone from the precinct or sidewalk.

A judge on Monday ruled out another planned defense: that the protesters’ conduct was justified by their cause.

Printed on Tuesday, May 1st, 2012: 20 activists on trial in New York for protesting racial profiling