Critical Mass: Not guilty UPDATED

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On April 14, after a week-long trial, Gus Ganley was found not guilty of charges stemming from last August’s clash between Critical Mass bike riders and Minneapolis police. On August 31, 2007, Gus Ganley was among 19 people arrested during Critical Mass, a bike ride that takes place on the last Friday of every month in Minneapolis. The August event, which drew hundreds of riders, included participants in the pReNC, a gathering organized by the RNC Welcoming Committee, an anarchist/anti-authoritarian group planning protests at next fall’s Republican National Convention.

After being held overnight, the 19 were released and most had their charges dropped. It wasn’t until two weeks later that Ganley learned he was being charged with assaulting a police officer and obstructing the legal process using force – both gross misdemeanors and fleeing a police officer – a misdemeanor.

“My heart sank,” said Ganley, a twenty-one-year-old film student at the University of MN. “I couldn’t believe it.” If convicted, Ganley could have faced up to two years in jail and a $7,000 fine. He was offered a plea bargain that would have required him to plead guilty to one of the gross misdemeanor charges in order to have the other charges dropped.

“I never considered it,” said Ganley. “I wasn’t going to plead guilty to something I didn’t do.” The case went to trial last Monday and concluded yesterday when a jury found Ganley not guilty on all counts. Approximately ten supporters, many of whom were also present at the August Critical Mass, attended the trial and were on hand to congratulate Ganley after the verdict was announced.

“This is the result I was expecting,” said Ganley after the trial. “But you can’t be too confident. I never should have been here in the first place.”

Ganley, who was represented free of charge by National Lawyer’s Guild attorneys Jordan Kushner and Carla Magnuson, said he was fortunate that so many eyewitnesses testified. Several took photographs and cell phone video of the incident, which ultimately decided the case in Ganley’s favor.

“We were able to reach a verdict fairly quickly,” said an anonymous juror as she left the courtroom. “The defense had much stronger evidence on their side.”

The defense called a total of 11 witnesses who described the August Critical Mass ride as unusual from the beginning.

“There were three police cars following the ride and they were being unusually aggressive,” said Andy Fahlstrom, a witness for the defense. He said police used their sirens during the ride without explanation and said police drove their squad cars within inches of some cyclists. “A couple times, I asked them not to drive so close to people,” said Fahlstrom. “I felt like they were endangering people’s safety.”

Other witnesses testified that they immediately noticed a heavy police presence even before the ride began.

“In the past, we’ve sometimes had one police car monitor the ride from the back,” said Fahlstrom. “But this was different.”

Police Sergeant David Stichter, the first witness for the prosecution, testified that a task force was created to monitor the August 31 Critical Mass ride, which included three traffic enforcement officers, three intelligence officers in unmarked cars, and two officers in a state patrol helicopter. When asked if he was expecting trouble during the ride, Stichter testified that the task force was informed ahead of time that members of the RNC Welcoming Committee would be at the event. He was told to be prepared for “potential property damage or assaultive behavior,” and mentioned that officers from Ramsey County were present during the briefing. Supporters present at the trial speculated that Ramsey County officers were involved because police believed the August 31 Critical Mass had implications for the 2008 RNC in St. Paul.

Officers were already on hand for an informal meeting of cyclists in Loring Park around 6 pm on August 31. Participants shared flyers describing their rights as cyclists and as citizens when dealing with police. Before the ride began, a member of the RNC Welcoming Committee made an announcement about organizing workshops scheduled for the weekend and emphasized, “We want this to be a safe ride and we don’t want anyone to get arrested.”

Stichter described two incidents during the middle of the ride that eventually led to a larger confrontation between police and cyclists – one involving the attempted arrest of a biker who allegedly eluded the police, and another involving a rider who was apprehended by undercover officers, but released in a case of mistaken identity.

Stichter testified that as the ride approached the corner of Grant and LaSalle Avenues, he decided to arrest a cyclist who was “swerving back and forth in front of police cars.”

That individual was 17-year-old Isaac Siegel-Peter who testified during Ganley’s trial. “I was not intentionally blocking any police cars,” said Siegel-Peter. “I really had no idea why I was being arrested.”

As Siegel-Peter was led to a squad car in handcuffs, police arrested Critical Mass rider Paul Kristapobich who was asking what the charges were and using a voice recorder to document the incident.

After the second arrest, Stichter testified that cyclists surrounded police and began chanting, “Let him go!” and “What’s the charge?” At that point, officers issued a call for help and several squad cars arrived at the scene.

Gus Ganley observed the arrest of Kristapobich and was among the people calling for his release. Officer Richard Lillard, the second witness for the prosecution, testified that Ganley was told to “get back” and that he seemed to be “inciting the crowd.”

When asked if he grabbed anyone during the incident or used mace on anyone, Lillard denied it. Defense attorney Jordan Kushner then introduced three videos showing Lillard using mace, running into the crowd, and grabbing someone off of his bike and throwing him to the ground. The video also showed Lillard grabbing Ganley and shoving him backwards against a police car.

“When I was told to step back, I did,” said Ganley. “And I raised my hands to show I didn’t mean any harm. But I felt it was my right and my duty to stay at the scene and witness what was going on.” Ganley testified that after Lillard pushed him against the police car, he was sprayed with mace and could no longer see clearly. After being shoved again by Lillard, he said he was tackled by three officers, punched several times, and handcuffed.

Officer Craig Williams, the final prosecution witness, was one of the officers who responded to the call for help. He testified that after eluding Officer Lillard, Ganley “squared up with me and swung at my left shoulder, then attempted to flee before being placed under arrest.”

Testimony from all 11 eyewitnesses contradicted Williams’ account. “I never swung at an officer or tried to get away,” said Ganley. “It wasn’t even possible. I couldn’t see or breathe because of the mace and I couldn’t have fled. The police had control of me the whole time.”

Video evidence showed that Williams was one of the officers who wrestled Ganley to the ground, but that the assault that he described did not occur. About ten seconds elapsed between the moment Ganley was grabbed and maced by Lillard, and the time he was tackled by three officers. Williams is not visible in the video until Ganley is being taken to the ground. Photographs show Ganley being grabbed and later lying on his back holding his glasses, which broke during the encounter.

In closing arguments, Kushner described Ganley as a “victim of police brutality who was accused of three crimes he didn’t commit.” After Ganley’s arrest, several more people were arrested or maced and some were shot with Tasers. Many were confronted as they were attempting to walk away from the scene. One was arrested while talking on the phone with an attorney.

During deliberation, the jury requested to see the videos again and asked which officer Ganley was accused of assaulting, obstructing, and fleeing. After being told it was Williams, they deliberated about ten minutes and returned with a not guilty verdict for each of the three charges.

Amid hugs from supporters, Ganley thanked the witnesses especially those who provided visual evidence. “Without the photos and videos, who knows what would have happened,” said Ganley. “It’s scary that the cops can lie so easily and try to get away with it.”

Ganley’s father, Dan, was present throughout the trial and expressed relief and outrage after the result. “Seeing that video brought me to tears,” he said. “It’s terrible what the police did.” He said it was a blessing to hear several witnesses describe his son as kind, thoughtful person. “That was very joyful for me,” said the elder Ganley. “From what I know of my son, he wouldn’t assault anyone.” After the trial, father and son were eager to recover the $3,000 in bail the City has been holding since last August.

Of the 19 who were arrested August 31, only two cases remain open. Charges against Siegel-Peter and Kristapobich, the first two arrested, were dropped months ago. Defense attorney Carla Magnuson said she hoped the result of Ganley’s case would pressure the City to drop the charges against the two others.

“It’s a poor use of taxpayer dollars to try cases like this,” said Magnuson. “The charges were completely unfounded.”

A statement from a Critical Mass community support group described Ganley’s trial as an attempt to cover up police misconduct.

Steven Marsh, a writer for Minneapolis/St. Paul magazine, participated in the August Critical Mass ride and described police behavior as a “dress-rehearsal for the RNC.”

Supporter Karen Redleaf emphasized the importance of solidarity in the face of police repression. “Gus was the one they chose to pick on, but it could have been anyone. By standing up and saying ‘not guilty’ he said it for all of us.”

Katrina Plotz is a substitute teacher, a freelance writer and an anti-war activist. She lives in Bloomington.

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