The St. Paul Police Department reported 52 arrests made on or near I-94 early Sunday morning, as hundreds of protesters came together in support of Philando Castile, the black man killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights last week.
Of those, 46 have been charged with third-degree rioting, a gross misdemeanor. The fact that St. Paul City Attorney Sammy Clark accused almost everyone of the same offense just shows how "ridiculous" the prosecutions are, according to Jordan Kushner, a veteran civil rights attorney working on the protesters' defense team.
Kushner, one of "at least 10" lawyers coordinating a defense of the Castile protesters, said Tuesday that the dozens of people arrested were exercising their right to civil disobedience, and are merely being "scapegoated" for the "objectionable" violence seen that night. The civilians who threw objects — bricks, bottles, and fireworks were directed at law enforcement officers — are "not associated" with the peaceful movement, according to Kushner.
"They're trying to hold them responsible for the objects thrown, and the disturbance," Kushner said. "But there was also a 'police riot' that took place. The police were shooting rubber bullets, and using teargas. Perhaps they want to hold protesters responsible for that, too."
Kushner added that to date, there there have been "no police arrested" for their actions during these or other protests.
Louis Hunter, of St. Louis Park, faces a second-degree riot charge, the Star Tribune reports, after cops alleged that he'd thrown rocks, and later picked up a big piece of wood and carried it around in the crowd. For this upgraded offense, a felony, Hunter is looking at up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. The maximum penalty for third-degree riot is a year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.
The invocation of the "riot" charge reminds Kushner of cases from a few years ago, when Occupy Homes — an outgrowth of the local branch of the national Occupy Wall Street movement — attempted to block the eviction of a family whose home was in foreclosure. Ultimately protesters were offered a plea deal for a far lesser offense than the riot charges. Kushner, who has handled high-profile Black Lives Matter protest cases in the past, says the I-94 demonstrations could come to a similar conclusion.
"I don't see how this is a riot," Kushner said. "I don't see how it sticks."
Protesters are scheduled for a first court appearance on August 26, and the full process will likely extend months (or more) beyond that. Charges stemming from Black Lives Matter's demonstration at the Mall of America around Christmas 2014 weren't dismissed until 11 months later.
The dozens of protest prosecutions are "political decisions," Kushner says, and not based on facts on the ground or legal analysis. He thinks the motivation is clear.
"This is ultimately about trying to chill the movement," Kushner said. "It's about suppressing the movement, making it more costly for people to protest, and trying to put an end to it."