Ten people arrested or cited in Laramie during peaceful protests calling for local police reform and supporting Black Lives Matter are asking for their citations to be dismissed, according to defense attorney Charles Pelkey.
Laramie police officers cited five protesters and arrested seven others during a June 25 march that blocked traffic along Grand Avenue, a major Laramie thoroughfare.
Pelkey’s ten clients have entered not guilty pleas, he said. Pelkey, who is representing the protesters pro bono, argued in court July 9 for the cases to be tried as one, a motion the city opposes.
The arrests came after protesters had occupied Grand Avenue and blocked one or both lanes of traffic. Marches occurred nearly nightly for several weeks. Police argued they had repeatedly asked the marchers to obey city laws by staying on the sidewalk, and had no choice but to arrest and cite protesters.
“We just felt at a certain point that you can no longer carry out your freedom of assembly in violation of our ordinances,” Laramie Chief of Police Dale Stalder said during a July 1 interview. “We made a decision [on June 25] to essentially either convince you to follow the laws or we would make citations or arrests.”
For nearly three weeks, police officers had kept their distance from protesters who had first marched on the sidewalk. But after about a week people had begun blocking traffic on Grand Avenue. Marches took to blocking traffic because they felt orderly marches on the sidewalk weren’t disruptive enough to garner the Laramie community’s attention, two protest organizers told WyoFile.
Public safety had become an issue as protesters routinely blocked traffic, Stalder said.
The protesters’ consistent blocking of 3rd and Grand, including lying down in the intersection for at least ten minutes, had also drawn complaints to LPD from the Wyoming Highway Patrol, Stalder said. Though labeled as 3rd street through downtown, the road is in fact Highway 287, an interstate under WHP’s jurisdiction.
“All of those factors came together to change the way we approached the demonstrations,” Stalder said.
“Our job always comes down to safety. Nothing else,” he said.
Pelkey and several protesters interviewed by WyoFile say the arrests were an encroachment on their constitutional right to protest.
“It’s called the First Amendment,” Pelkey said. “They have every right to do what they’re doing.”
Pelkey and his law partner intend to argue that the ordinance the protesters are charged with violating includes a caveat for constitutionally protected activity that the judge can consider, he said. Though the city prosecutor offered a “really kind” plea agreement, Pelkey said, the protesters rejected it. Even if generous, taking the plea agreement “still meant our clients were wrong in doing what they did,” Pelkey said.
Pelkey, a Democrat who also serves as one of Laramie and Albany County’s state representatives, said he and his partner were willing to push the case to the state’s supreme court if needed.
The city attorney’s office did not respond to a Monday morning voicemail requesting comment.
Lots of police
The day of the arrests, a police department spokeswoman issued a press release. “Beginning today, demonstrators are placed on notice that if they enter the roadway illegally, either to walk or to sit, they will be subject to citations,” the release said. Police would first warn, and then cite protesters who didn’t obey the warnings. The release did not mention arrests.
Before the march that evening, Assistant Police Chief Robert Terry delivered a warning in person to the protesters at the plaza before they began, according to protesters. Protesters disregarded it and marched down the street. When they hit 4th Street, a police car blocked their path, but the protesters moved around it. Then, dozens of officers streamed towards the marchers.
Protesters estimated there were more than 40 officers, and cell-phone videos captured a large show of force. Highway patrol officers were also present during the confrontation. Laramie PD brought in extra officers and paid more than 36 hours of overtime the day of the arrests, the Laramie Boomerang reported.
“It was an extremely unnecessary use of force,” Sam Smith, a protester who was cited, told WyoFile. “It was a clear scare tactic to intimidate protesters and suppress dissent against police,” he said.
Smith and other protesters criticized the police for making arrests when their warning suggested they would only issue citations. Smith himself, however, was initially told he was under arrest but in the end just received a citation, he said.
The police began making arrests because it became clear they needed to clear the roadway, Stalder said. “At the beginning, we went into it saying we will write these people citations,” he said, but as the police moved in, the crowd encircled the officers writing citations. “They were getting very close and those seizures started to become dangerous,” he said.
“They were starting to cause a more dangerous situation,” he said. “The decision was made to remove those people we had probable cause to make that seizure on to a safer location, for their safety and the officers safety.”
Stalder has reviewed body camera footage of the arrests, and is proud of the officers’ composure and performance, he said, “even though some of the demonstrators are within feet of them literally spitting on them.”
“There were no complaints of excessive force, there were no complaints of inappropriate behavior,” he continued.
At a recent city council meeting, however, one protester accused police officers of dislocating her shoulder during her arrest. Tori Kent wore her arm in a cloth sling to the June 30 council meeting with “Thanks LPD” written on it.
Protesters also argued the police escalated tensions by sweeping in in such a large number.
“It was straight out of a ‘Star Wars’ movie when the storm troopers come,” Hannah Scout, a protester who was arrested, said.
Scout, who is 22, was collared following the initial wave of arrests. After that, protesters marched on, mostly on the sidewalks, to 15th Street. Protesters then crossed the street and headed back toward 1st Street, following their usual route. Scout was carrying a flag and walking just off the sidewalk on the way back, when Laramie police officers crossed Grand Avenue to arrest her.
It was the first time Scout had been arrested. When her photograph appeared in the Laramie Boomerang’s coverage of the evening, she called her father to let him know, she told WyoFile. He is worried about her employment prospects if the charges stick and she has a criminal record, she said.
Scout isn’t concerned, given the circumstances. “If I tell my employer that I got arrested fighting for human rights and especially Black rights and they feel disturbed by that, then I don’t want to work for them,” she said.