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State attorney reduces some charges; refuses diversion to Tally 19 felony arrestees

By Zeke Greenwood |
October 26, 2020
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Tallahassee, FL - All spring and summer, organized groups of anti-police crimes protesters took to the streets, including the intersection in front of the historic capitol for over an hour at a time and on many occasions. Police regularly redirected traffic at least a block in every direction. Organizers would eventually announce the conclusion of street actions, at which time attendees dispersed without incident. Having spent all summer referring to these frequent street protests as “peaceful,” law enforcement agencies pivoted to making threats to crack down on “unpermitted” protesters for blocking traffic. This change by law enforcement occurred abruptly the afternoon of August 29.

Police pivot against protesters

Protesters marched on August 29 to the capitol and held the intersection there for an hour, observed by police who did not interfere. As a precaution against reactionary agitators, a caravan of cars made a large stationary circle around the protesters rallying at the center of the intersection. Nonetheless, police allowed a white supremist - who police confirmed was armed - entry to the clearly marked protest space. The racist initiated a fight and, when attendees defended themselves, he drew a gun and aimed it at protesters and police alike. Instead of arresting the gunman, police escorted him away, suddenly declared the protest unlawful, and demanded that attendees disperse, threatening “arrest, use of force and severe injury.” That same day police made changed their stance on the evening news, trading “peaceful” for “unpermitted” as their adjective of choice, and threatened arrest for “unpermitted” protests, especially in cases of blocked streets.

September 5 arrests

One week later, on September 5, nearly 300 officers clad in riot gear from many law enforcement agencies made good on these threats, violently attacking and shoving protesters on a sidewalk across from the historic capitol before dragging 14 people away, causing multiple injuries and sending three arrestees to the hospital. Police did not Mirandize anyone, nor did they inform anyone why they were being arrested. After transporting arrestees to a staging ground beneath the courthouse and then to the jail, officers from different departments took hours to decide among themselves who of the arrestees would be charged with what and which “arresting officers” would sign reports for each protester. The Tallahassee Police Department, Florida Highway Patrol, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Leon County Sheriff Office, and Florida State University Police Department took part - and there may have been more agencies - in the September 5 crackdown against those protesting grand jury decisions that cleared killer cops of any wrongdoing in the killings of three Tallahassee men earlier this year.

According to Trish Brown - a longtime community activist leader and organizer, recent candidate for city commission, and one of the Tally19 - protesters hit the street to “Demonstrate peacefully in solidarity; to demand justice and police accountability for victims, families and our communities who have been impacted by brutal and fatal police force.” Brown continued, “I was out that day to bring hope, power and positive change to our poverty-impacted communities and throughout our nation.”

Charges

Two were charged that day with felonies. Satya Stark-Bejnar was charged with resisting an officer with violence and one count of felony battery on a law enforcement officer, a charge that carries ten years in prison and $10,000 in fines. Stark-Bejnar was released that night on a $1000 bond. Timothy White was arrested on a felony charge of inciting a riot, which carried ten years in prison and $10,000 in fines, and one count of resisting an officer without violence. White was released on a $500 bond.

After-the-fact arrests continue

On September 9, law enforcement tracked down two more September 5 protest attendees using body cam and social media footage, arresting them late at night and with no warning. Police forcibly pulled Ben Grant from his home without showing him a warrant or telling him what his charges were. Police snatched another September 5 protester from a parking lot while she was leaving her gym. Both were released on bond later that night after 2 a.m. Grant was charged with felony count of battery on a law enforcement officer and a misdemeanor resisting without violence. His felony charge carries ten years in prison and $10,000 in fines. The next morning, police issued three more warrants for attendees of the September 5 protest, two of whom were alerted and able to turn themselves in. Both were bonded out later that day. The final, 19th warrant remains nameless, a month and a half later.

Movement response

Local organizers who were not jailed September 5 sprang into action immediately, raising funds for bail and reaching out to local attorneys, eight of whom agreed to represent September 5 arrestees pro bono. The Tallahassee Bail Fund posted bond for 11 of the people arrested, totaling more than $2000. This is in addition to their previous and ongoing decarceration work to reduce jail populations and slow the spread of COVID-19. One individual spent over $1000 of their own money to help just one arrestee bypass the use of a bondsman. Jail support was organized such that crowds of supporters were assembled, socially distanced, in the jail parking lot to cheer each arrestee as they were released, offering encouragement, water, snacks and rides home.

Support for the #Tally19 has taken the form of donations, jail support presence and mass mobilizations. Organizations and individuals from Tallahassee and beyond have applied persistent pressure on the city commission, city manager, law enforcement agencies, and State Attorney Jack Campbell to #DropTheCharges through call-in days, social media blasts, newspaper editorials and public comment during government meetings.

Changes to charges

Last week, several arrestees' charges were reduced and consolidated. Tim White’s felony charge was replaced with a different, lesser charge. State Attorney Jack Campbell announced a ‘Diversion Program’ offer to Tally 19’ers charged with only misdemeanors. A condition of this program is to participate for an unspecified duration of a 12-hour long virtual, city-sponsored Race Relations Summit, including a previously non-existing breakout session on “How to Safely and Lawfully Protest.” Diversion offers and terms were issued with only nine days’ notice before the Race Relations Summit, giving arrestees insufficient time to inform and make arrangements with their students, employers, professors, etc., and to obtain a stable internet connection. Not all Tally 19’ers offered diversion have internet service at their homes, and not all Tally 19’ers even have stable housing, which makes Campbell’s ‘diversion’ patently inaccessible to some, even if they wanted to take the offer. Tally 19’ers with felony charges were excluded from the diversion offer.

Regina Joseph, Tally19’er and president of the Tallahassee Community Action Committee (TCAC), said, “I will not take this diversion offer while my wife [Stark-Bejnar] and my comrade [Grant] are still collectively facing decades in prison for democratically exercising their so-called First Amendment rights.”

Joseph showed this author a copy of the diversion deal that was offered to her. The document, titled “Diversion Program, Deferred Prosecution Agreement” states, “For the purpose of this program, the Defendant admits his or her guilt of the offense(s) charged, and recognizes that said admission could be used as evidence against the Defendant in the event of the prosecution of the case.”

Joseph continued, “The fact this wasn’t even offered to people with felony charges is awful. It shows those in power Jack Campbell, City Manager Reese Goad, Chief of TPD Lawrence Revell, LCSO, FSUPD and all of the law enforcement agencies involved in September will stop at nothing to vilify protesters and will do everything possible to ‘make an example’ out of us. An injury to one is an injury to all and we must stand in solidarity with those facing felony charges. Every time we refuse to admit guilt, they puff up for the press, but then they reduce charges and make small improvements to the terms of diversion. That said, zero arrestees have had all their charges dropped, and all charges must be dropped. The fight is not over.”

The Race Summit Diversion Program requirement was offered only days before the summit, and elements of the summit itself are almost laughable. Speakers at the ‘race summit’ include multiple members of the same Tallahassee Police Department that not only brutalized protesters on September 5, but is also responsible for killing three civilians in the first few months of 2020, deaths that sparked the last six months of frequent local protest activity in the first place. TPD Chief of Police Lawrence Revell was installed in his position in January, despite vocal community opposition. His ten-month tenure of terror is no surprise to longtime Tallahasseans who recall the 1990s, with then-officer Revell terrorizing the Black and low-income communities of Tallahassee with his all-white “Alpha Squad,” and Revell’s 1996 murder of Black teenager George “Lil Nuke” Williams. The state attorney has yet to offer any diversion programs to, much less file charges against, killer-cop Revell’s present-day killer cops.

Many protesters arrested related to September 5 are dedicated organizers who have for years been leading the fight for a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) in Tallahassee. These arrests and charge - especially the felony charges - and diversion programs are political repression. The diversion program and the focus on ‘safety’ and ‘perfect lawfulness’ are designed to diminish and dilute public protest activity. Organizers and attendees have been safe at protests in Tallahassee for years, including while consistently taking the streets, even during a global pandemic. Thanks to consistent mask-wearing by attendees, Tallahassee protests haven’t resulted in any known spikes of COVID-19 spread. The only times protesters were hurt this year was when reactionary agitators armed with guns or trucks were allowed, by the police, to threaten and run through protest actions, or at the hands of police themselves.

The police have shown themselves time and time again to condone, as well as be themselves instigators of violence at protests across the country, and yet continuously face no consequences. And it gets worse. When civilians have the courage to stand up against hypocrisy to say, “This is unacceptable; no more!” and demand accountability for murderous and violent cops, they are brutalized and arrested.

Zeke Greenwood (he / they) is an activist in Tallahassee, FL.

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