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They Took Umbrellas to a Black Lives Matter Protest. The D.A. Hit Them with Gang Charges

Police and prosecutors routinely treat white domestic terrorists with kid gloves, but use the full force of the law against protesters calling for an end to police violence against Black people.

(Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In Washington, D.C., members of a pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol and killed a police officer are so far being charged mainly with disorderly conduct and unlawful entry. The man photographed with his feet on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk faces three charges that carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison. After the violent siege, some members of the mob simply returned to their hotel.

Many were quick to point out an apparent double standard when compared to the way police in D.C. treated Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer—like when they tear gassed protesters to clear the way for a Trump photo op, or when row upon row of National Guard troops stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in anticipation of the sixth day of George Floyd protests. A similar double standard is now on display in Arizona.

In Maricopa County, 15 people who attended a Black Lives Matter protest where traffic cones were knocked down are being charged with rioting, aggravated assault, and assisting in a criminal street gang, all serious felonies that could land them in prison for decades. The gang charges are based only on the fact that the group carried umbrellas, wore black, and used the phrase “all cops are bastards.” The 15 Black Lives Matter protesters were forcibly arrested on the night of the protest. One was shot with pepper bullets; another spent two weeks in jail.

The 15 protesters are facing serious consequences. They now have an arrest for serious felonies on their records. They’re living with the specter of prison hanging over them. Some are spending money on lawyers to fight the charges. They could spend years in prison and could suffer all the collateral consequences of having a criminal record, which makes it harder to obtain jobs, housing, and some government assistance. And if convicted of a felony, they would lose the ability to vote.

“It’s outrageous,” said Paul Gattone, an attorney for three of the protesters. “I was shocked when I came on the case and saw they had charged them with organized street gang activity. They are trying to say that ACAB is an organization like the Crips and the Bloods, that they have an organization and they’re prone to violence. This is not an organization. These are just individuals that came together to protest.”

It’s hard to come away with any other realization than public safety isn’t likely the driving principle of policing in America.

Jared Keenan ACLU

But when a large group of armed far-right protesters descended upon the Maricopa County Elections Office night after night in November to “stop the steal,” the police presence was noticeably less intense. No tear gas was deployed and no arrests were made. The group included Infowars host Alex Jones, U.S. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Jake Angeli, who was seen wearing a fur hat, horns, and no shirt during the storming of the Capitol that resulted in the deaths of five people. Angeli, whose real name is Jacob Anthony Chansley, has since been arrested and faces unlawful entry and disorderly conduct charges.

“Throughout the summer and into more recent anti-lockdown and election protests,” said Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona, “it became shockingly clear that the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the police are going to take two different approaches to protesters that they view as their political enemies and those who they have sympathy toward.”

It’s a pattern that has played out across the country. Time and again, police and prosecutors have treated white, right-wing protesters with kid gloves, but responded to Black Lives Matter protesters with the full force of the law. In D.C., a police officer posed for selfies, others shook hands with a member of the mob. At least 28 current law enforcement officers even attended the rally that sparked the invasion of the Capitol. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, where people were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, officers were filmed giving water to armed militia members, including Kyle Rittenhouse, and saying, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” Moments later, Rittenhouse killed two people. Last week, an Iowa man who deliberately drove into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters and injured several people was given a deferred judgment, meaning he will serve no prison time and the arrest will be expunged from his record, so long as he does not commit any more crimes in the next three years.

Meanwhile, police were caught on video after video this summer violently attacking peaceful Black Lives Matter activists: Officers shot multiple people in the eye, leaving several blinded in one eye. They pushed an old man down to the ground with such force that he bled from his ears, and rammed vehicles into protesters. In New York, two lawyers who allegedly set fire to an empty NYPD cruiser during a Black Lives Matter protest are facing life in prison—and a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 years—because federal prosecutors chose to seek such a sentence. Prosecutors in Utah also raised the threat of life in prison against Black Lives Matter protesters in Salt Lake City who allegedly smashed windows and put red paint on the district attorney’s office.

“In Phoenix, local police muster overwhelming numbers to quash Black assembly, censor Black activism, and criminalize Black leaders with mere hours of notice before a peaceful protest,” said Lola N’sangou, executive director of Mass Liberation Arizona. “But in D.C., with weeks to prepare, local police sat idly by as the violent crowd scaled walls to occupy the Capitol building.”

On Oct. 17, about 20 people gathered in downtown Phoenix to march for justice for victims of police violence. The group was made up mostly of young people, including three 17-year-olds, an honors student from Arizona State University, and a Harvard student. The group marched down the streets of Phoenix chanting “Black lives matter.” Some of the protesters moved traffic cones and signs into the middle of the street. Some carried umbrellas, which protesters have used to protect themselves from tear gas and projectiles.

Eventually, police officers donning helmets and bulletproof vests closed in on the group. With a weapon drawn, an officer told them to get on the ground, which they did. Police ripped away the umbrellas. Dozens of officers surrounded the protesters, video footage shows. Police handcuffed the kneeling protesters, yanked them to their feet, and put them in the back of cruisers. Police used pepper bullets on at least one of the protesters.

In arrest forms, police officers said the protesters belonged to “a group known as ACAB All Cops Are Bastards.” Police said some of the group members threw smoke devices. They submitted charges for felony aggravated assault on a police officer (one protester allegedly dug his nails into one officer’s left thumb while being arrested), obstructing a public thoroughfare, hindering prosecution, unlawful assembly, and rioting.

The case was assigned to the first responder bureau, which was established by Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel after she took office and handles crimes against first responders. The bureau was created with the help of former Phoenix police officer Tom Van Dorn. The lead prosecutor on the case, April Sponsel, is married to an Arizona state trooper. Sponsel brought gang charges against the protesters, in addition to many of the charges submitted by police.

Last month, Sponsel filed motions to allege at least six aggravating circumstances against the protesters, which enhances the criminal penalties the protesters will face if convicted. Prosecutors allege that the protesters committed offenses that “involved the infliction or threatened infliction of serious injury,” involved the use or possession of a deadly weapon, “specifically umbrella and/or smoke bombs,” and wore a mask during the offense.

While police and prosecutors claim the protesters are part of a gang called “ACAB,” protesters and their attorneys say many of the people who attended the Oct. 17 protest didn’t even know each other.

“The only person at the protest who I previously knew was my boyfriend,” one of the protesters, Amy Kaper, said in an affidavit submitted to the court. “I had no contact by and through social media, texting, or in any other manner with any of the protesters before that evening.” Kaper is a healthcare worker studying to get her master’s degree and has no criminal record, according to the affidavit. Her boyfriend was also arrested. 

Ryan Tait, a defense attorney who represents one of the protesters and previously worked for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said that he and his client strongly dispute the gang charges. “Assisting a criminal street gang is a charge that enhances a sentence,” Tait said. “It has serious consequences. It puts you in a category” where the penalties are enhanced and opportunities for a reduced sentence are cut.

“Ryder is a nurse who lives in Prescott who has never been a member of a gang, is not a member of a gang, and does not know anyone who is involved in this case,” attorney Katie Gipson-McLean said of her client, Ryder Collins. “He didn’t go downtown to participate in the protest, nor did he participate in any protest. He’s an amateur photographer, which is what brought him downtown that day.”

In a statement, the county attorney’s office said the prosecution was not political and that it supports everyone’s First Amendment rights, but “will not allow violence to take over our streets.” 

“While some will attempt to describe these defendants as ‘protestors,’ a grand jury found probable cause to charge this group with crimes, including the planning of violence,” the MCAO said. “As County Attorney Adel has publicly stated numerous times, MCAO is committed to protecting the safety of everyone in this community, law enforcement and demonstrators alike.”

After the deaths of George Floyd and Dion Johnson, who was killed by an Arizona state trooper last May, Black Lives Matter demonstrators marched in the streets of Phoenix to demand justice and change. During the first four nights of protests in Phoenix, police arrested nearly 350 people, including four undocumented people who then faced deportation. Police used tear gas and non-lethal projectiles on protesters, in one case breaking a man’s arm. They targeted protest leaders and accused them of committing crimes the activists say they did not commit. Local police have surveilled police reform activists and victims of police violence in Maricopa County, but have not extended the same monitoring to far-right groups.

Last week, Adel’s office declined to bring charges against the Phoenix police officer who threatened to shoot Mayor Kate Gallego, stating that they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer’s statements constituted a true threat. According to a police report, Officer Steve Poulos, a 22-year veteran with the department, said “If the mayor defunds the police, I’m going to shoot her.” When his sergeant told Poulos he was not going to shoot the mayor, Poulos doubled down on his threat. “That’s a promise,” he reportedly said.

“Overall, when you look at the way police and prosecutors have reacted to people protesting government killing of black and brown people—the mob was not treated by police the same way at that time,” said Jared Keenan with the ACLU. “It’s hard to come away with any other realization than public safety isn’t likely the driving principle of policing in America.” 

Several of the defendants have been offered plea deals, but it’s unlikely any will take it. According to an attorney familiar with the case, the plea requires the defendants to plead guilty to two felony offenses, including the street gang charge. In Arizona, those charges cannot be expunged or later downgraded to a misdemeanor, and if they ever got in trouble with the law again, they’d be put in a higher sentencing category with harsher penalties.

Some of the defendants have trials set for early March and April, though that date is likely to be pushed back as their attorneys fight the charges against them. 

“We cannot remain silent when the disparate impact of our criminal punishment machine is laid bare,” said N’sangou from Mass Liberation. “In 2020, peaceful protesters were criminalized by the thousands merely for calling to end generations of police violence. But in the first week of 2021, we watched a violent insurrection breach the halls of Congress with almost no opposition.”

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated Tom Van Dorn’s relationship to the First Responders Bureau. Van Dorn helped create it, but now oversees the agency’s Investigations Bureau and the Public Safety Liaison Team, which reviews police shootings and in-custody deaths. Sherry Leckrone leads the First Responders Bureau.