Activists: Drop all charges against Minneapolis protesters

Legal aid groups are assisting hundreds of protesters against police brutality to fight charges.

A protester shouts into a megaphone in front of the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 20, 2021 [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]

Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States – Activists in Minneapolis are demanding all charges be dropped against those who protested against police brutality and racism in the year since George Floyd was murdered, saying the arrests are an attempt to clamp down on dissent.

Former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on second and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges in relation to Floyd’s death on April 20.

The verdict caused joyous celebration and calls for further justice, especially for the hundreds of protesters still facing charges.

About 600 people were arrested in the initial protests, which activists call an “uprising”, but mass arrests have occurred at numerous demonstrations since. Most recently, about 150 arrests were made during protests following Daunte Wright’s killing by former police officer Kim Potter, which occurred in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center as Chauvin’s trial was taking place.

About 50 people were arrested after Chauvin was released on bail in October, roughly 600 during the post-election tumult in November, and 35 at a demonstration on New Year’s Eve and other protests. The arrests resulted in charges ranging from petty misdemeanours to felony riot.

An activist leads a protest of demonstrators while marching through downtown Minneapolis demanding justice for George Floyd and Daunte Wright during jury deliberations in former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 19, 2021 [File: Octavio Jones/Reuters]

Link, a self-described “leftist” who gave only his first name due to arrests by the Minneapolis Police Department, told Al Jazeera it was “the people who were out protesting and that they’re trying to repress and give all these charges to” that put pressure on authorities to prosecute Chauvin.

Local organisations like the National Lawyers Guild and the Legal Rights Center are organising the hundreds of people arrested to fight the charges.

Traia Thiel, a chapter organiser with the Minneapolis National Lawyer’s Guild, told Al Jazeera she was charged with a misdemeanour after the October protest.

Thiel explained those arrested coordinated with each other and mounted a unified attempt to bring the charges to trial.

Hennepin County courts are overloaded with arrests from the past year and the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down proceedings further, making legal proceedings against protesters a cumbersome task for local courts.

While some took plea deals, Thiel’s misdeamnour was dropped along with all others who had not taken a plea deal “just a few weeks ago”, she said.

600 on I-94

Thiel explained it is difficult to know exactly how many people have been arrested or taken pleas, given the large number of arrests over the past year.

She was not personally surprised by her charges being dropped, but said she thought “the 600 cases before they drop this small group of 50 … it’s interesting the way they’re choosing which events to sort of let go”.

The 600 cases occurred during a post-election protest on Interstate 94. Rob Lewis, Maria Higueros-Canny, Theo Martinson-Sage and Mara McCollor were all arrested that night.

Lewis and Higueros-Canny are both teachers. Martinson-Sage and McCollor are university students. All were inspired to protest by the tumult they saw in 2020. All received misdemeanour charges, which they plan to fight.

Higueros-Canny, a single mother, left her children in the care of her sister. She, along with the others were arrested about 8pm local time after they were “kettled”, a tactic police use to control large crowds by surrounding demonstrators.

Law enforcement officers took hours to book the hundreds of detainees. As time went on, Higueros-Canny began to worry about her children. “We finally went and turned ourselves over probably about 11:30 pm.”

McCollor and Martinson-Sage, who are in their early 20s, were also arrested about 8pm. It was the first arrest for both.

Their hands were zip-tied behind their backs by police as they were arrested. McCollor said she was fearful as “heavily-armed police” officers on horses surrounded the group and helicopters flying overhead.

The university students were given their charges at a police car after a few hours and released. But they were still zip-tied, they said, unable to use their phones to call a ride.

Eventually, they found others who could help them cut the plastic holding their hands.

All felt the kettling and arrests were meant to clamp down on activism. Lewis said the experience made him draw parallels with activists he knew in Egypt.

“You don’t go out to protest because you’ll be beaten up. You’ll be surrounded. You’ll be arrested.”

Once he saw protests in Brooklyn Center after Wright’s death, which involved tear gas, mace and less lethal munitions used on protesters, Lewis “was triggered into thinking, am I going to be safe going out to a protest?”

A person stands on an apartment complex balcony while smoke rises in the background as law enforcement officers begin to clear protesters rallying outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department on April 14, 2021 [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

Still, all four said they will keep protesting.

“I might not get on a highway any time soon,” Higueros-Canny said, “but I’m still going to be out there at night protesting in places like Brooklyn Center.”

She concluded: “All of this has made me even more determined.”

Source: Al Jazeera