Critical Mass turns the tables on injustice

A handful of citizens refuse to surrender not only their freedom of expression, but yours and mine as well.

by John Hoff

University student Augustin “Gus” Ganley, 20, has very thin shoulders for a hero.

For about half an hour last Thursday, I sat behind Ganley while lawyers argued in court about what evidence may or may not exist about an eventful night late August, when approximately 20 people were arrested during a bike rally for Critical Mass.

Ganley was among those arrested. Only a handful of the cyclists still face charges.

You wouldn’t know Ganley and his friends were the defendants from what I witnessed at that hearing before District Judge Margaret Daly. It seemed as though the tables had turned, and now police were actually the ones on trial for hurting innocent people. Police then tried (in a most embarrassing and bumbling manner) to conceal evidence of their misconduct, including videos shot by an undercover officer and from a police helicopter.

A lone city prosecutor seemed outnumbered by defense lawyers, with so many attorneys that some had to sit in jury seats. There was no room in the front for defendants, who sat in the audience gallery accompanied by a crowd of supporters.

It was like a surreal, pinstriped application of the rallying cry for Critical Mass, which is “Mass Up.” Lawyers showed up en masse, even for clients whose charges had been dismissed such as Carla Magnuson, the attorney representing a young man from Cannon Falls, Minnesota.

In support of their classmate, who was 17 when arrested but has since turned 18, a large and energetic contingent of high school students from Northfield School of Arts and Technology came to the hearing.

The students had met with an advisor and managed to turn their trip into an assignment to observe the criminal justice system, according to Dane Curry, 17, who said he was trying to figure out “how it all works.”

“Take off your hat,” a bailiff snarled at Curry, and Curry pulled off his dark stocking like it was on fire.

Curry’s spirit was hardly broken, however. He later related how he had spoken to a judge in the elevator who admitted his own son attends Critical Mass rallies. Curry showed me a flier that read, “Drop the charges, prosecute the police.”

The audience was jam-packed with supporters, most wearing stickers with a stylized bike image. I saw one National Lawyers’ Guild attorney who had arrived to observe the proceedings give the prosecutor a big hug.

He looked as though he truly needed one.

The prosecutor had a tough hand to play, phrasing things carefully about what evidence he “was aware of” while treading oh-so-lightly near the subject of what evidence might really, truthfully, in an objective state of reality, somehow freaking exist like your own hand waving in front of your face, hello.

Three lawyers who spoke for the defendants each made slam dunk cases, reading excerpts from police documents and even offering up a still image from YouTube to prove, beyond any doubt, that police had videotaped the August 31 rally from a helicopter using an undercover officer.

There were also tantalizing discussions about other evidence. It turns out Tasers have data chips to record when the Taser was shot and how long it was shot each time. Some Tasers are even outfitted with video cameras.

The attorney for defendant Alia Trindle was particularly interested in the Taser evidence, saying his client was attacked by three officers using “pain compliance” techniques and Tasered twice on the ground before being charged with three traffic offenses.

Trindle’s lawyer said his client, a small young woman, was in a mass of bikers herded together by police and didn’t get out of the way of a squad car fast enough as it went the wrong way down a one-way street.

Trindle’s attorney pointedly brought up the recent death of a motorist by Taser.

Another defendant, Paul Kristapovich, is accused of “obstructing legal process” for, according to his attorney, “at most verbally questioning what was taking place.”

Reading from case law, the attorney said “nonviolent questioning of police officers is acceptable” and argued “this is one of the few protections from a police state that constantly seeks to encroach on our lives.”

(Cases like that should come with a warning label: Apply at your own risk.)

The possibility of a police crackdown prior to the 2008 Republican National Convention also raised its ugly red head.

According to Jordan S. Kushner, president of the local chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild, “This relates to RNC 2008 in that the police decision to crackdown apparently related to their preparation for RNC 2008, and the Minneapolis city attorney’s prosecution of these cases is clearly designed to have a chilling effect on protests at RNC.”

Kushner offered the following evidence to support his point: “The city attorney offered plea deals to out-of-town defendants that involved them agreeing to stay out of the Twin Cities for a year. The deals were of course turned down.”

Kushner refused to comment about the possibility of a lawsuit by members of Critical Mass once the criminal charges are resolved. Kushner’s client, Ganley, wouldn’t comment either, citing the advice of his attorney.

On the eve of RNC 2008, which promises to bring with it the most massive political demonstrations since Seattle in 1999, a handful of citizens selected through a process of random police violence are now staring political oppression right in the face, refusing to blink, and refusing to surrender not only their right to free expression, but yours and mine as well.

If you see Ganley in one of your classes at the University, shake his hand. He’s a hero.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]