Local Lawyers and Activists Come to the Aid of Protesters
A look at life after the arrests
"I have a podium, so I guess that makes me the press secretary," said George Lobb, one of the 30 or so attorneys who make up the Austin Lawyers Guild, which has been getting those arrested in anti-policing protests out of jail and providing representation to those who want it, free of charge. Lobb says ALG has helped 120 of the 200 or so arrested since late May; he has personally taken between 15 and 20 cases. "They're doing something we can't," he said of the protesters, "because if I did something like that I might lose my law license. So [we're] supporting the protests and sending a message to the government that the people are tired of getting fucked with."
Lobb and others expect that most protesters will eventually have their charges dropped, but the process has just begun. Once a person is arrested for a misdemeanor, it usually takes the county attorney's office at least two months to evaluate the evidence and decide whether to pursue the case. For those arrested for a felony, prosecuted by the District Attorney's Office, the process takes longer. So far, only a handful have had their charges dropped.
Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, who'll be replaced by Delia Garza in January, says each case is different and needs to be addressed individually. The most common charged offense has been obstructing a roadway, a class B misdemeanor. "Largely, we rely on dropping them down to a class C misdemeanor," Escamilla told the Chronicle. "Really, the more appropriate offense in those cases is 'failure to obey an order from a law enforcement official.' So it goes to JP [justice of the peace] court, and then you get a class C misdemeanor, where your liberty is not in jeopardy." Class C charges are not punishable by jail time. "Then we use deferred disposition: Don't get arrested again in the next three to six months for a class C, and the case ends up being never prosecuted and dismissed."
But Lobb says even dismissed class C charges can be damaging to protesters' lives if prosecutors don't offer the chance to expunge the records. "Example: You get arrested for obstructing a highway because you're protesting in the middle of a street, and for disorderly conduct because you're shouting something obscene. And you happen to have a joint in your pocket; you get charged with three things. And they drop all of them except the obstruction of a highway and they give you a class C misdemeanor and you pay a $100 fine on it. Well, none of those three charges can be expunged. Even though all of them were dismissed and one was dismissed under a reduction."
Lobb says that in this scenario a person could be turned down for jobs and housing for something no more momentous, legally speaking, than a traffic ticket. "If someone were to ask you, 'Have you ever been arrested, charged, or convicted?' your answer would have to be 'yes,' because you were arrested and the case wasn't expunged. ... We've taken a position at Austin Lawyers Guild that if they're gonna push us into a corner where we don't get the expunction, then fuck it, we send all the cases to trial. Call your first witness, let's go."
Those whose cases have not yet been resolved face a similar situation, Lobb says, because questions about open criminal cases are common in applications for jobs and housing as well. Lobb said that with the pandemic having stalled jury trials, his clients may have to wait over a year to get their cases resolved. "So in other words, we here in Texas are charging you with a crime because we have a right to do it, but your right to a jury trial, no, fuck that, because we can't manage that and we ignore scientists and pay attention to the politicians. So come back next year if you want a trial. And if you can't get a job or can't rent an apartment, that's not our problem."
Lobb is representing Lisa Hogan, who faces state jail felony charges for livestreaming the looting of the Capital Plaza Target on May 31. (Hogan was inaccurately identified in previous reporting, including by the Chronicle, as a member of the Mike Ramos Brigade. She's never been a member of the group.) "As far as Lisa's concerned, I'd be interested to see how the state of Texas is going to prove that someone reporting on an alleged looting is guilty of looting," Lobb said. "Mere presence does not equate to guilt. ... If you want to record it, you can do that. Now, morally, are you responsible to Target? Well, that's a discussion for you, Target, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster."
Another group, the Drop the Charges coalition, has been recently organized to help arrestees, connecting them with attorneys from the ALG or elsewhere and offering money to those who want to use their own representation. "We also help emotionally, morally, and politically," said Olympia Garcia, spokesperson for the group. "We want to make sure that these protesters know that if they get arrested, we'll be waiting out there for them." At their website, www.dropthecharges2020.org, people may make contributions, ask for help, and participate in pressure campaigns targeting Escamilla and District Attorney Margaret Moore (also being replaced in January, likely by José Garza).
The group also calls attention to Gov. Greg Abbott's recent demagoguery to create new offenses for participating in a "riot." Abbott's proposal would also create felony charges for forming and participating in groups like ALG and Drop the Charges. "It's a scare tactic and we understand that," Garcia said. "[But] the increased repression is really important to talk about. Right-wingers want to go as far as criminalizing people who support protesters."
Lobb has seen the proposal, too. "Reading it as it's written, essentially myself and three other people [at ALG] would be guilty of a felony, third degree," he said. Abbott "is basically going to outlaw the exercise of a constitutional right [that] goes back 800 years. Magna Carta-level shit, and he wants to outlaw it."
The leaders of the various Black Lives Matter groups don't want to talk about it, and livestreamer Hiram Garcia himself has declined to comment, but the independent journalist who has been ubiquitous at the protests since late May has lost the trust of some activists. For the last several weeks, he's been asked not to stream the marches.
The crux of the issue is Garcia's videotaping of protesters' faces. Protesters say that police scour Garcia's feed, archived at ImHiram.com, in an attempt to ID protesters and target them for arrest. Garcia has been asked to blur out marchers' faces in his videos – which would require him to edit them before putting them online – but he's refused. He confronted the same issue early in the protests with the Mike Ramos Brigade but was able to smooth things over. Now, other Black leaders as well as the MRB are objecting to his presence.
There's more to the criticism than Garcia's refusal to blur the faces of marchers, though. Some in the movement also dislike Garcia's chumminess with police and his refusal to condemn the right wing; during his streams he frequently proclaims his love for everyone, including Trump supporters. Critics say his Facebook feed is full of right-wing trolls and hate, and that his constant claim that he is "unbiased" works as a dog whistle, setting up false equivalence between racist views and the positions of BLM supporters. They further charge that he is using the BLM movement for personal gain, as a springboard to a journalism career.
The tension came to a head at the Sept. 23 march to protest the lack of charges against the police in Kentucky who killed Breonna Taylor. Garcia reported that night that as the protest got under way, a group knocked him to the ground and grabbed at his equipment, causing his glasses to be lost and his livestream cut. When the march began and he resumed streaming, Garcia was shadowed by protesters who placed their signs in front of his camera, shoving and threatening him and chanting the slogan they use when trying to drive someone from the group: "Act like a cop, get treated like a cop."
"My criticism is the vague reporting," said King, the activist organizer of Star Power Blac Kollective. "My thing is, it said eight protesters got arrested and it came from The Austin Chronicle, but it wasn't how they got arrested, why they got arrested. And I believe that it's the news' job to report the honest truth and let people know that the cops are doing really bad things right now."
King is describing his disappointment with press coverage of his BLM march on Aug. 29. That evening, the organizer gave a brief speech on the subject of white rage beside the Trader Joe's in the Seaholm District. Then he and the Black leader known as Jay led a group of more than 100 down the middle of Cesar Chavez, heading east. As protesters neared Guadalupe, bike cops and cruisers swooped in, hemming the group onto the triangle of land across from City Hall. Police then jumped into the crowd and made arrests, walking those apprehended, including Jay, to waiting cars as protesters cursed them.
The protest that night concluded several weeks of arrests where Austin Police Department made it plain they would no longer tolerate marching in the streets. Close to 70 protesters were taken in during August, most for obstruction of a roadway. Organizers have adapted by changing how they march. At recent events, protesters have been kept to the sidewalks. As a result, few were arrested in September, aside from the 12 taken in on Sept. 23 at the Breonna Taylor march.
King's most recent march, on Sept. 26 at South Congress and Monroe, demonstrated the new approach. "We took both sides of the sidewalk and we had about 150 people," King said. "And the cops told me we could not impede traffic. So we started marching down the sidewalks. There were about 20 bike cops, about seven APD SUVs, and there were two paddy wagons. We were marching on the sidewalk, they were in the street, and guess what they were doing – impeding traffic.
"So I looked at it and I see all these cars backed up, so what did I end up doing? I told all my protesters, 'Hey, stop. Let's stop walking here. We're not breaking the law.' So what ended up happening? The cops – not us, the cops – ended up impeding all this traffic. So the protests on the sidewalk, it's playing against what they're trying to do. It's effective. The symbolism of that is, you can push us off the streets, you can brutalize us day in and day out, you can try to silence us – but we're not going to stay quiet."