LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Matt Kaufmann loved bringing real world issues into his classroom, but he didn’t expect it to become a lesson himself. Headlines, however, made it difficult to avoid: “Arrested Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year,” local news rang after his May 31 detention.
An English teacher at the Marion C. Moore School at the time, Mr. Kaufmann was among more than 800 people swept away by police in Louisville during the many months of protests sparked by the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis. and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. .
Mr. Kaufmann and his fiancee, new to the protest, joined a large downtown crowd at the end of May, he said, when police began to halt the protest by firing tear gas and charging from all sides. With a helicopter flying over his head, he suddenly found himself lined up on the ground with dozens of other protesters, then transported to a crowded prison cell.
“I had never experienced anything like this before,” said Kaufmann, 41. “It was scary.”
Now, more than five months later, as Mr. Kaufmann’s case and that of thousands more finally find its way to court across the United States, a vast majority of cases against protesters are dismissed. Only cases involving larger charges such as destruction of property or other violence remain.
Prosecutors called the scale of the mass arrests and mass dismissals in a matter of months unparalleled, at least since the civil rights protests of the early 1960s. Police detaining hundreds in major cities, the arrests of this year have come up against the limits of the judicial system.
In the process, prosecutors refused to prosecute many cases because they concluded that the protesters were exercising their basic civil rights. Cases involving freedom of speech or freedom of assembly rarely end up in court, according to prosecutors across the country, and the coronavirus pandemic has also played a role in the decision. A wave of thousands of minor cases has threatened to capsize courts already plagued with heavy foreclosure arrears.
It has also been recognized that law enforcement officers often use mass arrests as a technique to help clean the streets, and not to deal with illegal behavior.
For those dealing with the cases, the task felt Sisyphus. “Every day I thought I was done and the next morning there would be 50 or 100 cases to count,” said Mary Ellen Heng, an assistant district attorney for the city of Minneapolis. So far, the city is prosecuting around 75 of the 666 cases.
“What has happened over the past few months here is nothing like what I have seen in my 23 years in terms of the volume of cases,” she said.
Most of the charges in the nearly 300 federal protest cases involve arson or assaulting police officers, just like state and municipal affairs.
“It’s a hangover after months of protests,” said Ted Shouse, a criminal defense attorney in Louisville who has helped organize more than 100 volunteer defense lawyers.
Protest leaders and defense lawyers across the country accuse police of laying charges in an attempt to stop the protests. “It was to quell dissent,” said Attica Scott, the only black woman in the Kentucky state legislature and one of the protest organizers detained by police.
Ms Scott’s arrest in September has become one of the most contentious cases in Louisville as she and several other protest leaders were initially charged with attempting to ignite a library, a felony, and raping a 9 p.m. curfew.
Jefferson County attorney Mike O’Connell himself appeared in court to ask that the felony charges be dropped after reviewing the evidence, including a live Instagram broadcast by Ms Scott with a time stamp indicating that the arrests took place before the curfew.
Defense attorneys working on cases in many cities have said more people of color than white are being charged, but it was not a universal pattern. “Even taking into account the racial makeup of the protests, black people have been disproportionately charged,” Mr. Shouse said in Louisville.
A recent study from the Louisville Courier-Journal found that blacks made up 53% of those arrested there in the four months starting May 29, but faced 69% of felony charges. In predominantly white Portland, Oregon, white defendants made up 65% of the more than 140 upcoming cases, while 32% were from other racial groups.
Sgt. John Bradley, a spokesperson for the Louisville Metro Police Department, said officers made arrests based on Kentucky law, and it was up to the county attorney to prosecute or not.
The precise numbers on arrests and dismissals across the country are elusive amid the complicated patchwork of law enforcement agencies and state, county or city prosecutors involved.
In Los Angeles County, for example, the district attorney has refused to press charges against 334 people but is pursuing 257 cases of people arrested between late May and early August, said Greg Risling, a spokesperson.
But not all Los Angeles County jurisdictions close cases. Beverly Hills is pursuing misdemeanor charges against a group of 25 people resulting from a protest in June and plans to prosecute others after another protest in July, said Rachel Steinback, coordinator of the Mass Defense Committee of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles.
In Portland, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office summed up their numbers in a neat table: District Attorney Mike Schmidt dismissed 721 cases, pursuing 144 and 165 under review.
Based on the example of the Occupy Wall Street protesters ten years ago, Schmidt knew judges would either dismiss most cases or impose small sentences. “Seventy to 80 percent would not survive constitutional challenges,” said Schmidt, who added that the costs far outweighed any benefit to public safety.
Adding 1,000 cases to the annual average of less than 20,000 would be discouraging, he said. The same goes for the Minneapolis City Attorney, whose office deals with about 15,000 misdemeanors a year. “Even if Covid were not an issue, it would be a monstrous task for us to pursue 500 more cases,” Ms. Heng said.
Walk into virtually any major courthouse in America and the tension of the backlog is palpable.
In Louisville, these cases are called “parking”. There are approximately 22,000 such cases in total, with only four of the 10 trial courts operating in the Jefferson County Courthouse. In two days at the end of October, 300 indictments for protest cases were stuck in the schedule, about 10 times the normal rate.
Judge Lisa Langford briefly lost track of the cases that were in the courtroom and those that were on Zoom. “He waved to me, I thought he was just happy to see me,” she joked after locating a lawyer on Zoom.
Prosecutors have decided to dismiss 219 protest cases, said Josh Abner, the spokesman for the Jefferson County district attorney.
“We don’t have a magic wand we can wave in relation to all of these cases,” said O’Connell, noting that a team of four prosecutors combed through them.
After massive arrests at the 2000 Republican National Convention, Philadelphia legislated a lesser charge to get people off the streets. The police started issuing summonses outside the regular courts. The offenses and the crimes go to the public prosecutor, contrary to the summons.
Larry Krasner, the city’s district attorney, said his office is reviewing 586 cases and the city is dropping up to 2,000 summons. The cases examined concern incidents such as break-ins into shops or the burning of police vehicles.
Prosecutions there and elsewhere have also been curtailed by the chaotic nature of the protests, particularly during the first few weeks when most arrests took place. With the police double-shifting, there was a delay in the paperwork, so it was impossible to find reports or witnesses for some cases.
In Louisville, as the months drag on with the charges hanging over their heads, many protesters feel stuck in limbo.
Kelly Parry, 33, both a voluntary and defendant defense lawyer, was among 76 protesters arrested as they blocked an avenue in July. “It’s mentally exhausting not knowing what could happen to you,” she says. “You keep asking yourself, ‘Is this a small situation or will it become something bigger? “
Mr. Kaufmann, the teacher, was charged with a curfew violation, a misdemeanor, but tried to ignore it. “I don’t want to give in to fear,” he said, focusing instead on his new job with the Jefferson County school system, which is helping develop a social justice program.
He and Stephanie Kornexl-Kaufmann, then his fiancée and now his wife, decided to join the protesters after hearing the recording of the 911 call that Kenneth Walker, Ms Taylor’s boyfriend, made as the police broke into his apartment in a botched drug raid. .
“We were stunned, we were shocked,” Kaufmann said. “The country is not living up to the values we teach in the classroom.”
Mr Kaufmann was named the state high school teacher of the year in part for hosting classroom discussions around real-world issues like the #MeToo movement. But none had knocked so close to home.
News of his arrest spread with lightning speed.
Kaelyn Goatley, 17, a senior at Marion C. Moore School, had to explain to her grandmother, who was at first appalled, why Mr Kaufmann’s arrest was a good thing.
“I was proud to have a teacher who was on the streets fighting for justice,” she said. “He has this great title of high school teacher of the year and the fact that he was there to protest and to be arrested meant he was risking that. It shows how determined he is to make changes. “
At the end of October, Mr Kaufmann learned that the charges against him, his wife and a former student who was with them would be dropped. He was delighted but noted that hundreds of cases were still pending.
“My young black friends, male and female, whom I met during the protests were in more danger than I and some of them still face these charges,” he said. “It’s not fair, it’s not consistent and we have to do better.”