How Black Lives Matter inspired protesters took on a city attorney and won

"We were hoping to get the charges dropped for everyone."

Jared Goyette
August 03, 2018 - 9:37 am

Photo courtesy of Thaiphy Phan-Quang

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After a drawn-out two year legal battle, dozens of court dates and pre-trial hearings, seven trials and a steady drumbeat of plea deal negotiations, the St. Paul City Attorney's Office did a dramatic about-face Wednesday when it dropped charges against the remaining 17 protesters who were still facing trials related to their participation of the occupation of the Governor's Mansion, part of the protests following the death of Philando Castile in 2016.  

While the occupation, one of the longest in the Twin Cities recent history (together with the one at the fourth precinct following the police shooting of Jamar Clark in 2015 ) and the underlying issues it sought to address were politically charged, St Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson’s decision to drop charges was ultimately a practical one. It was also no accident — the move showed that, whatever you think of their cause, activists who are organized via a Facebook group, with little-to-no institutional support and volunteer lawyers, can still, with the right strategy, take on a city attorney.

There’s an old expression that says “You can’t fight city hall,” — well, they did, and for the most part, they won.

What happened

The standoff at the Governor's Mansion between a diverse group of mainly young protesters and City of St. Paul Police lasted 20 days, and I was there as a reporter for much of it. The occupation started the night Philando Castile died — a group of activists went from the site where St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Castile to the Governor's Mansion to hold a protest, and some stayed.  

Early on, the police set a rule that protesters could be on the sidewalk in front of the building, but not use tents or anything indicative of a permanent presence. There were incidents when protesters blocked traffic, though that wasn't the case for any of those arrested when police eventually moved in to end the occupation.  

By that time, the space by the sidewalk had become a rallying point for both veteran activists and young people of color as well as their white allies — many were students in their early 20s who were getting their first taste of politics in action. Their focus was on police accountability and reform, as well as Castile’s case. They were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, though they weren’t necessarily formally part of it.

Negotiations between police and activists broke down on the morning of Tuesday, July 26, and shortly afterward, police started pulling apart and a arresting a small group of young activists who were there at the time. Once word got out of the arrests via social media, however, more activists started flowing into the site, and a cycle of arrests, followed by more arrivals, followed by more arrests continued throughout the afternoon and into the early morning hours the next day.

A total of 73 people were arrested. Most were charged with public nuisance and unlawful assembly.

Why the city attorney dropped the charges

Initially, activists say that the city attorney sought to resolve the cases via the common practice of threatening stiff penalties while offering more generous plea deals. As the legal process and hearings wore on, 49 people eventually accepted deals,, but the rest of the activists refused to budge, betting that the city would blink first. Then, once cases started going to trial this year, the city kept losing — in six of the seven initial trials, the defendants were acquitted.

Faced with a dismal court record and a now more emboldened group of 17 protesters unwilling to take a plea deal, the city attorney did indeed blink.

“The City stands by its original position that these criminal charges are supported by sufficient evidence. The majority of cases were resolved with petty misdemeanor and diversion options,” Olson’s office said in a statement to the press. “However, over the course of the initial trials, the court and juries acquitted six of the seven defendants. To continue by taking the remaining 17 cases to trial is not a good use of City resources and prevailing in court is unlikely.”

How activists reacted

Rachel Goligoski, 54, a semi-retired landscape architect from St. Paul, was one of the 17 people whose charges were dropped on Wednesday. She found out via text message when her friends heard the news on the radio. She was both relieved at the outcome and frustrated that it had taken so long to happen.

“I can't believe how much money and time the city wasted trying to prosecute people who were standing on the sidewalk peacefully in my case at 10 in the morning. It was just a real waste of money and also a violation of our amendment rights to peacefully protest,” she told WCCO Radio.

On this point, the city attorney’s office responded: “Questions of resource allocation as well as judicial economy routinely play a part in legal decision making and balancing the interests of justice.”

Goligoski said she also thought of the protesters who had taken plea deals.

“I just feel bad for all the people who, because of work or family or health, transportation just couldn't stick it out for two years. They had to take a plea deal and now they have fines and probation and some may have records. So that's disturbing.”

Yhante Williams was one of the 49 who took a plea deal. She said she had to pay a $250 fine and received six months probation for charges that included obstructing the sidewalk. Williams didn’t plan to take a plea, but eventually decided she couldn’t go through the process.

“Well, they were just very persistent. They wanted to make us tired so that we wouldn't have to keep doing it. That's basically why I took the plea deal,  because I was tired of going back and forth to court, sitting there for hours and hours having nothing happened,” she said.

Williams said she was grateful for those who had let their cases to trial, as that had set the precedent for the city losing most of the trials and dropping the remaining charges.  

“They knew that we were going to come in and we, we weren't afraid. We didn't back down. A huge shout out for the people who didn't take the plea and continued with going to court. They're the real troopers.”

The one guilty verdict

Of all 73 protesters arrested by police at the Governor's Mansion, only one, ultimately, was found guilty by a jury.

Ranelle LaBiche, a musician and music therapist who lives in Minneapolis, was found guilty in April of unlawful assembly and not guilty for public nuisance. Her sentence was an $80 fine plus court fees, for a total of about $130. Another protester who was tried with her was cleared of both charges.

Ranelle LaBiche after her trial, with a fellow activist who was found not guilty. 

She said she was “thrilled” to hear the news that the remaining 17 people still facing trials had seen their charges dropped.

“By organizing as a group and standing up against the charges, from the get-go, we were hoping to get the charges dropped for everyone,” she wrote in a text.

She noted that the group stayed active politically, even as the process drew out over the course of two years, longer than the Yanez trial.

“Over the years of fighting these charges we continually called city representatives and advocated for the charges against protesters to be dropped and continued these actions during and after each trial. Along the way, plea deals did become better and better as the city prosecutor was scrambling. What we were doing was showing to be effective,” she wrote.  

LaBiche, who is also known as the lead vocalist and producer for the local synth indie rock band Elle PF, said that she able to take her case to trial because of the support of other activists and her pro bono lawyer, Barry Edwards. Another important factor: she has a job with a flexible schedule. Many of the people who took plea deals, like Yhante Williams, did so because they couldn’t afford to miss time at work or related costs, like transportation.

“I was in a position and had the privilege to fight so I did. And will continue to do so,” she wrote.

What happens next

Shortly after announcing that it had dropped charges related to the protests at the Governor's Mansion, the city attorney’s office confirmed that it would go forward with two trials set to occur this month related to two other protests that occurred in 2016 in the aftermath of the Castile shooting — one at Carty Park in August and another at the Ramsey County Courthouse in September.

Photo courtesy of Thaiphy Phan-Quang

Maddie Harrison, 23, from Minneapolis, works with preschoolers who have autism and is facing public nuisance and unlawful assembly charges related to those two actions. Harrison, who is pictured in the photo above this article, was not arrested at either protest, but received notice of the charges in the mail. Her trial begins on Aug. 20.

Harrison believes the city dropped the other charges because it had established a losing track record for the Governor's Mansion cases, but that’s not the case yet for the other two protests.  

“This isn’t about justice, I think this is about not wanting to add more failures to their track record of trials. So I believe that the reason that I'm still facing charges and other people are still facing charges from these other actions is because they haven't had any experience with how these trials are going to go,” she said in a phone interview. “So I feel like they still believe that there's a chance that they could get some convictions out of these other cases.”

Regardless of the outcome of her trial, she thinks the legal battle has given valuable lessons to activists. She believes that Castile didn’t get justice, but thinks the fact that charges were brought against Yanez was a small win, even though Yanez was acquitted by a jury after his trial. Likewise, she sees the decision by the city attorney to drop charges against 17 activists this week as another small step forward.  

“I think ultimately, what I've seen through this process is that when we do choose to stand together and continue to stand together, we can have wins in the community… The fact that all of these charges from the mansion are being dropped, that was a small win and that only happened because a group of people was resilient enough to stand together for over two years,” she said.

Note:  Both photos in this piece are by Thaiphy Phan-Quang, see his work on Instagram