Activists arrested on freeway protest charges by rejecting plea deals and going to trial

By: - December 6, 2021 7:01 am

Activists set up banners calling for charges to be dropped one year after 646 people were cited for protesting on Interstate 94. The banners were set up during rush hour on a pedestrian bridge above where demonstrators were detained by state troopers. Photo by J.D. Duggan/Minnesota Reformer.

The day after the 2020 general election, state troopers arrested 646 people for marching onto Interstate 94 in Minneapolis to protest President Donald Trump’s efforts to stop ballot counting and various social injustices.

The mass arrest — the largest in recent state history — signaled the Minnesota State Patrol was done cajoling and pleading with activists. Troopers were going to start taking a hard line on blocking freeways, a tactic that has become almost routine for large demonstrations in recent years.

But that show of force prompted an outcry from local lawmakers and left prosecutors with mountains of paperwork.

After lengthy delays, hundreds of those cases are going to trial and many activists are determined to make it as difficult for prosecutors as possible by refusing plea deals — forcing them to either dismiss the charges or go to trial.

“We’re trying to be as big of a nuisance as possible,” said Caroline Dahl, one of the defendants. “The primary reason I decided to take it to trial is because I wanted to discourage the state from using these repressive tactics in the future.”

Prosecutors have stopped short of giving in to activists’ demands and dismissing charges, but they have offered favorable plea agreements, including “restorative justice circles.” City attorneys have also dropped the misdemeanor charges, which would give defendants the right to a jury trial and a public defender, leaving just petty misdemeanor charges, which are decided by judges.

While hundreds have been persuaded to accept plea agreements, about 280 people have rejected deals and decided to have their day in court, according to the Minneapolis City Attorney’s office.

The march 

The march on Nov. 4, 2020 was part of a national day of protest with people taking to the streets over Trump’s threats to challenge the election results as well as the social injustices that have roiled the country since the start of the pandemic and police killing of George Floyd: racism, police brutality, economic inequality.

On that day, a large crowd — including families with children in tow — gathered in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Leaders of the march took people through city streets before unexpectedly turning onto the eastbound on-ramp of I-94 at Cedar Avenue.

Within 20 minutes, state troopers surrounded the protest, preventing people from exiting the freeway and announcing that everyone would be arrested and jailed. Later, the State Patrol announced people would simply be cited and packed demonstrators onto buses that dropped them off in various parts of the city.

A group of protesters march through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 4, 2020, before entering the Interstate 94 freeway. Photo by Tony Webster.

The whole ordeal lasted nearly five hours, with some protesters dancing the Cupid Shuffle to pass the time.

Local lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Tim Walz blasting the show of force, calling it counterproductive and a waste of money.

“These choices wasted public resources and added further strain to the fragile relationship between police and community members, especially in this part of South Minneapolis located just blocks from the 3rd Precinct,” read a letter signed by more than two dozen Democratic state legislators and city council members.

Local lawmakers said the response was out of line with the way freeway protests had been handled in the past, in which law enforcement tried to move demonstrators off the freeway.

Freeway protests have become a concern for state leaders in recent years as well as a political flash point, with the Republican-controlled House passing a bill in 2018 that would have made participating in freeway protests a gross misdemeanor. Lawmakers in other states have pushed forward bills that grant immunity to drivers who unintentionally hit protesters.

State officials defended the decision to arrest demonstrators, noting that it is illegal to walk on a freeway and pointing to safety concerns. Just months earlier, a semi truck driver drove through a protest on Interstate 35W, apparently by mistake, though no one was seriously injured.

State Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, said in an interview that the intent of the arrest was clear: deter people from further protesting on the freeway.

“But is this a deterrence? Or is this criminalizing young people who, at the height of fighting for justice, were caught up in that process?” Noor said.

He has spoken with those who head the State Patrol, which oversaw and conducted the arrests, and said he spoke to the city about dropping the charges. While Noor agrees that protesters shouldn’t take to the freeway, he said this wasn’t the way to handle the issue.

“How much is it costing us just to do this?” Noor said. “We’re dealing with a lot of public safety issues every single day in our city. And I think that should have been more of a priority than prosecuting low-level (offenses).”

Zoom court

The court has taken arrestees in batches, filling virtual Zoom courtrooms with multiple defendants, lawyers and observers.

“The prosecutor could have simply declined to charge all of these people instead of wasting court resources on hundreds of charges and sort of assembly line-style justice,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota.

She said many demonstrators didn’t realize they would be engaging in civil disobedience, including parents who brought their children on the march. Demonstrators weren’t given dispersal orders or the opportunity to exit the freeway on their own.

Nelson said it sends a “chilling message” to activists.

The City Attorney’s Office said in an email that it is offering multiple options to resolve cases “in an effort to create a fair and equitable resolution.”

Defendants who want their cases dismissed can do so by completing six hours of community service or taking part in a restorative justice circle. They can also have their cases dismissed in six months by agreeing to suspend prosecution and pay $175. Otherwise, their options are pleading guilty and paying $178 within six months, or pleading not guilty and going to trial.

Raj Sethuraju, who chairs the criminal justice reform committee of the Minneapolis NAACP, said he helped negotiate the restorative justice option along with the ACLU and Legal Rights Center. It directs protesters to two-hour virtual conversations about police reform and community healing. That option has drawn criticism, with some defendants saying it feels like the government is co-opting progressive language.

Malaika Eban, director of community strategy with the Legal Rights Center, said the team is not allowing prosecutors or police into the restorative justice discussions, but defendants can choose to share their thoughts with law enforcement and the City Attorney’s Office.

“This is closer on the spectrum to like a community-building restorative practice,” Eban said. About 40 people have taken the option so far, she said.

Defendants like Jaime Hokanson said the options feel like a tactic to “dissuade people from exercising their right to disprove the claims made by the prosecution.”

The office, which has taken on 588 cases related to the protest, argues the charges don’t infringe on people’s First Amendment rights because they broke the law.

“We must underscore that it is illegal in the state of Minnesota to walk onto a freeway as a pedestrian. This prohibition applies to peaceful protesters,” the City Attorney’s Office said in an emailed statement. “Walking onto a freeway is inherently dangerous to both motorists and protesters alike.”

Mounting a defense

The judicial process has been “extremely drawn out,” Hokanson said. She didn’t come before a judge until more than a year after the protest, and her trial is still a week away.

The court held a hearing Nov. 19 where at least six defendants brought forward various motions in their defense. Thomas Huling, an attorney representing one of the defendants, said in the hearing that the law is not narrowly tailored and its significant focus on vehicle traffic “swallows the existence of the streets as a public forum under the First Amendment.”

While law enforcement and prosecutors said the law is designed to keep people safe, defendant Rachel Goligoski and others said officers were sometimes violent during the arrests. Law enforcement hit protesters with batons, smashed car windows and aimed rubber bullet launchers at people, according to witnesses.

“They took my car, my phone and my keys. And then after five-and-a-half hours or whatever, just told me to walk off the freeway alone,” Goligoski said. “They didn’t care about our safety, and it’s an insult that the prosecution says that they had to hold us for our safety. It’s a joke.”

During the Nov. 22 bench trial of protester Inti Hirt, her lawyer, Jordan Kushner, pointed out that nobody was hurt while on the freeway, and police intervention was unnecessary. Hirt is expected to receive her verdict sometime in December.

Amina McCaskill was the only protester who faced a felony charge after that night. She was charged with second-degree riot armed with a dangerous weapon for shining a laser into an officer’s eyes. She expressed frustration at being charged with a felony when a white woman kicked an officer in the groin and was charged with a lesser crime of fourth-degree assault.

McCaskill, a Black woman who was 19 at the time of her arrest, tried to take a plea deal, but the judge rejected it. He instead granted her motion and dismissed the charges against her last summer, noting in his order that there was no probable cause for intent or that establishes a laser pointer as a dangerous weapon.

“It was honestly a blessing. It was a miracle,” McCaskill said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

J.D. Duggan
J.D. Duggan

J.D. Duggan is a Twin Cities journalist with bylines from both sides of the river. J.D. is currently collecting Twin Cities ghost stories.