This past Friday, Trygve Bundgaard, Alan Pitts, Mark Chamberlain, and Cayla Norris were found guilty of violating the Pedestrian Access Act (PAA). These four protesters are members of the Coalition for Compassion and Action (CCA), an activist group that aims to end homelessness in Colorado Springs. This is the first verdict over the act, also called the Sit-Lie Ordinance, that was passed by the Colorado Springs City Council in February 2016.
The ordinance prohibits sitting, kneeling, reclining, or lying down on sidewalks and other right-of-ways in parts of downtown and Old Colorado Springs. Violators caught face prohibition, a maximum $500 fine, or both.
Since the act’s passing it has gathered significant opposition, with many fearing that it would disproportionally target impoverished and homeless people. To call attention to this fear, Trygve Bundgaard organized a protest on April 9—the day the ordinance went into effect—that drew at least 150 to Acacia Park. It was an impressive display of solidarity and peaceful protest.
At the conclusion of that day, the four protestors mentioned above were willingly arrested for sitting on the sidewalk at the park’s entrance.
“I was arrested almost eight months ago and a lot has changed. I’m hoping the city is realizing the political cost of enforcing the law is too high to tolerate,” Bundgaard said of the protest.
While there is large debate circulating over the law’s merits, the jurors of the trial were asked to determine only whether the protesters were sitting, kneeling, reclining, or lying down on sidewalks in down town Colorado Springs. The judge, Municipal Court Judge HayDen W. Kane II, sought to keep the trial from evolving into a policy debate by restricting the protestors from building a First Amendment defense and calling into question the validity of the PAA during the trial. In fact, questions concerning why the protesters protested were prohibited at the trial. These limitations contributed to a swift verdict, with the six-person jury deliberating for only 25 minutes.
Alan Pitts described the issue, “Due to certain restrictions placed on us by the court, it was difficult to argue different aspects of our case. Because of this the jurors saw a very narrow definition of the events that occurred on April 9.”
Pitts cites a comment made in a recent Gazette article as evidence that the jurors had a personal view on the ordinance that they were unable to include in their ruling. The Gazette article quotes juror David Dodge, who said, “I get why they protested, I understand all of that. But that wasn’t this jury’s consideration. We’re not arguing the validity of the ordinance, but rather whether it was broken or not.”
On this controversy, Bundgaard said, “It was disappointing. I always had a secret hope the jury would see past the black and white and comment on the injustice of the law. It’s their constitutional right.”
The trial was unable to address what the protesters consider the significant issue—the rationality and ethics of the act. Pitts hopes the community will see the legitimate problem.
“I believe that due to the way the city attorneys argued for a strict definition of what happened that day that the PAA is not about public access nor is it about public safety…It is a way for the city to further discriminate against already marginalized parts of our population,” he said after the trial. Many feel homelessness is already a huge crisis in Colorado Springs and this act, according to Pitts, only “further pushes them to the edges of our community.”
The PAA arose as a modification to an earlier version of the act, introduced in September 2015, which only permitted people to sit on certain “street furniture” or risk a fine of up to 2,500 or six months in jail. The PAA has lowered monetary and jail time repercussions, though opponents of the act still believe it unfairly targets the homeless population.
While some community members support the act—primarily downtown business owners—many community members find it sends the wrong message. They believe it divides our community by alienating the homeless. Pitts hopes the city will come to its senses when he said, “There is a crisis happening in Colorado Springs and the city is either ignorant to it or just blatantly ignoring it.” Opponents of the act believe that rather than forcing restrictions, the city should be searching for solutions and avenues for progress.
Although disappointed with the outcome, Bundgaard said, “Any press is good press regarding a bad law. If there is any silver lining here it’s the sentencing hearing. I’m looking forward to bringing a lot of topics to the forefront that we were unable to argue during the trial.”
The protesters face fines up to $500 and/or probation. Sentencing for the protesters is scheduled for Dec. 15 before Judge Kane.
During the closing arguments, Bundgaard questioned the jury: “Are you confused? Because I’m confused. And that’s exactly why we acted.”