Jason Sole can vividly recall watching Ramsey County Attorney John Choi announce his charging decision in the police shooting of Philando Castile.
Sole, then the newly elected president of the Minneapolis NAACP, was there that day along with other activists, organizers, and Black Lives Matter protesters. They were prepared to speak out and demonstrate immediately when, inevitably, Choi decided not to charge Jeronimo Yanez, the St. Anthony Police Department cop who'd killed Castile.
Then Sole noticed something strange. Choi's tone and his words were building up to a moment none of the activists had expected. Yanez would be charged (with second-degree manslaughter, among other offenses) and forced to stand trial for killing Castile, after all.
The moment was satisfying and shocking all at once, Sole recalls, a rare instance of the powers that be striking a blow in the name of racial justice. Another such moment might come Monday. Sole's not holding out hope.
At 9:00 a.m. January 9, the trial of Allen Scarsella is scheduled to finally begin in a Hennepin County courtroom. Scarsella, 24, is the shooter of five Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrating at a north Minneapolis police department in November 2015. Defense attorneys don't deny that Scarsella pulled the trigger, but say the young white man was acting in self-defense.
The people shot wonder why Scarsella and his friends were there in the first place; they had expressed racist views on 4chan and in videos published online days prior to the shooting.
Sole, who has met with and advised shooting victims from that night, says he's disappointed in what they perceive as inadequate treatment from the county. A lack of trust has fostered a climate where dark rumors grow: That law enforcement might have played a passive role in the original shooting; that Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman attended a pretrial hearing and sat with Scarsella's family. (Freeman's office says he has not attended any hearings, and would not sit with an accused perpetrator's family.)
Scarsella's prosecution is the most high-profile trial no one's talking about. City Pages sat down with Sole to get his take on the case, and what's at stake for the prosecution, the victims, and the city.
City Pages: Mike Freeman had a pretty visible public presence around the Jamar Clark [police shooting] investigation. Are you surprised he hasn’t been more public about this case?
Jason Sole: I’m not. This is what I expect. It’s the same old same old. If we really unwrap these layers, we’ll see -- I never know, [the shooters] could’ve been coerced into doing that. I don’t know how deep it is. I don’t know how far it goes. But you can’t say you’re going to be fair and impartial on these things, and consistently, nearly every time, go against us. Nearly every time. Even when we are victimized.
Those guys [the victims], that’s some trauma they went through. They were victimized doing something that’s legal. It’s legal to protest. So, to get shot, and then to treat the case so callous… if that was was a person of color who shot somebody, they’d already be in prison.
I’m a criminal justice professor. I teach. So when I speak, it’s like I’ve got a university stamping the things I’m saying. Mike Freeman cannot operate like that to people that are harmed. Cameron [Clark] is the cousin of Jamar, and they’re close in age. They were the same age.
CP: They grew up together.
Sole: So for him to get shot? Not even saying the prosecution part, I’m just saying as far as fairness, the process hasn’t been fair. I think because they were protesters, they’re not looked at as victims.
[Editor's note: The Hennepin County Attorney's Office says a victim services advocate has been working with each of the shooting victims since charges were filed in late November 2015. The victims have been "contacted repeatedly," according to spokesman Chuck Laszewski, with updates of proceedings and the pre-trial schedule. Says Laszewski: "Some of these guys have not gotten back to our advocate, and that's their right."]
CP: Is part of your issue just how long this has taken?
Sole: No, a lot of these folks get some pretty solid lawyers. I’m not surprised that it takes long. They’re not doing anything new, they’re doing what they’ve always done. They can identify with the shooter more than they can identify with the protesters being shot, and that’s what it boils down to. “I’m more comfortable with you, I understand you.” It might not be as extreme for Mike Freeman, but it’s the same lens, of how they look at people that look like me. That’s the main thing to me. When I’m speaking about this, I want [the victims] to get justice.
CP: Do you have an idea of what “justice” looks like in this case? Would you be upset if [Allen] Scarsella took some kind of plea and got out of more serious charges?
Sole: I’d be comfortable with whatever the people that were shot are comfortable with. I don’t have a clear idea of what I want to see. I do want people to be held accountable for their actions. What that looks like could be part of a discussion. I’m just afraid nothing will be done about it. Now, you victimize people twice.
Well, really, in this case, three times. You kill their cousin; you shoot them; and then they come to court and have to relive all of this stuff all over again. They’re the ones who went through it. You’re going to impact their paradigm of the criminal justice system. Are you going to reinforce what they already believe? Or are you going to show us something new?
CP: Is this case, to you, a test for Mike Freeman to win back trust from people he lost over Jamar Clark?
Sole: It’s going to take a lot to build trust, and I don’t think one case will make everybody feel like the system is fixed. I think this is an opportunity for him to start repairing the harm that’s been done. We can’t continue to go on like this putting groups of people in a category that says they don’t matter. It’s a similar pattern. If you know the story of CeCe McDonald, look at how [Freeman] handled that. He has consistent behavior of doing it.
CP: People directly involved in this case have said things that suggested maybe the cops knew something was going to happen, and let it happen.
Sole: I don’t know. But that’s what I’m saying: You get shot, you can think all kinds of things. Me, if I don’t see it, I don’t say it. There were times where it was some law enforcement involved. I don’t know the extent. There are some things -- like, come on, where is this other guy who had that mask on? It doesn’t make sense, where, you’re not even looking?
The system, they got into a space where they’re not even thinking anymore. Definitely, one white supremacist that got chased off was connected to law enforcement. He got into a vehicle. These guys were connected to some Mankato police officers.
CP: In a case like this, where it’s going to come down to believing a guy who says he shot people in self defense, do you trust a jury here?
Sole: I don’t trust juries because of the make-up. That’s my professor hat on. It’s just not a fair process, how you get that jury formed is based off variables that very clearly exclude certain people from being on juries. At least we have a chance to analyze and put our own narrative on this. For me, I’m just going to watch it. I think going through the process alone helps us understand.
I can already see what [the defense] is trying to do. They’re trying to take the sting out of it. This happened in December 2015, and it’s going to be 2017 now.
CP: This case presents the potential for a long and uncomfortable public trial. Do you think that might be healthy, to have it go on for a while, and have this all get aired out?
Sole: Well, that’s how they set up the courts! [Laughs.] Absolutely I think it’s healthy. You’re going to have to really sit there and explain why [the shooters] came down here in the first place. I’m looking at intent. We can do our own research, and I’m pretty sure we can find people in [Scarsella’s] background who will say, “Yeah, he has been having these thoughts.”
The thing is, going through the process allows us to craft a narrative in order to discuss it. It gives us more to work with. That’s what we need, people who follow and analyze cases. When I’m involved, I’ve got to provide a narrative so people can understand -- either you can protest this, or you can make phone calls on this. It’s all to help us get justice, because, if you don’t do it, you can definitely forget about justice.
That’s what people want, is to have a voice. They don’t want to get shot in the street and get treated like crap. Their life isn’t the same. It’s even worse since all of this trauma. We’ve gotta get justice in this case, otherwise we’re just more hurt, more distrustful of the system, more combative.
CP: Can you imagine a worst case scenario, where Scarsella walks? What do you think would happen?
Sole: If he walks? I would hope there’s an appeal process. The thing is, they’re accustomed to not providing justice, even with the microscope on them. They might get rewarded for being the way they are. There might be some people who say, “We appreciate you for keeping this system in place.”
I don’t think there is a worst case scenario. We’ve been through this stuff before. We’re actually shocked when we get justice. [Laughs.] We expect it not to go right.