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Stepping up: Attorneys offer pro bono services to protesters

Protestors gather on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus before walking to the Capitol (photo by Maura Mazurowski)

Protestors gather on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus before walking to the Capitol. (photo by Maura Mazurowski)

After authorities arrested 233 people in Richmond this week following a curfew imposed by the governor, a network of local defense lawyers say they’re here to help.

“I put a request out to the community on Facebook and via emails and immediately got a response,” said criminal defense attorney Sara Gaborik.

Gaborik, who has been representing protesters since 2015, began compiling a list of pro bono attorneys as a string of citywide protests began May 29 following the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in Minneapolis by an officer who had his knee pressed into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

As of June 4, nearly two dozen criminal defense attorneys had contacted Gaborik saying they want to represent protesters, while another dozen lawyers who do not practice criminal law offered to help in other ways.

“I don’t think this list is going to end anytime soon,” Gaborik said.

Looting and fires broke out on May 30 as violence overcame peaceful protests between demonstrators and police, spurring Gov. Ralph Northam to issue an executive order declaring an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew from May 31 to June 3.

Though Northam clarified exceptions to violating the curfew order — including persons traveling to and from home or work and hospital personnel — attorneys found discrepancies across the board on whom law enforcement chose to arrest.

Take Gaborik’s first client. On June 2, Gaborik said she was contacted by a Virginia Commonwealth University student who was arrested while walking home with her friends.

“They were not part of the protest, they did not have cars and they were not aware there was a curfew in place,” Gaborik said.

Misty Whitehead, another attorney on Gaborik’s “list,” is representing a 19-year-old man who was detained for 14 hours after being arrested for a curfew violation. Though Whitehead said her client wasn’t doing anything more “than being outside,” she’s not surprised that an arrest was made.

“These are unprecedented times, and I think we’re seeing a lot more action from authorities that I think they may not have felt the pressure to do before,” Whitehead said.

At a press conference on June 1, Police Chief William Smith said those arrested starting May 31 were mostly from outside the city and engaged in “looting or vandalizing property” rather than peacefully protesting.

According to attorney Kathy Poindexter, her client — a 22-year-old man with no prior criminal record — was not looting or carrying weapons or contraband; he was “allegedly merely there as a peaceful protester.”

“The problem is, under normal circumstances, that same kid would likely be given a summons and told to leave the premises,” Poindexter said. “They weren’t giving people the option to abide by the curfew… They were just being processed.”

“Jail support”

Gaborik is not alone in her efforts to represent protesters. Workers and volunteers with the Richmond Community Bail Fund, or RCBF, arrived at the Richmond City Justice Center early Monday morning to offer support to protesters as they began to be released at approximately 4 a.m.

Luca Connolly, co-director of RCBF, said this process known as “jail support” has been used by activists for generations.

“Jail support is when activists and movement lawyers go down to the jail when people are incarcerated and offer support in a variety of ways,” she said. “Sometimes it means we’re there waiting to apply pressure, or to clap and cheer when you get out.”

Having set up a community hotline, Connolly’s organization received more than 60 names of people who were arrested through the night of May 31.

“We were so flooded with calls, there were so many arrests that it just made sense to physically gather at the jail,” Connolly said.

By early afternoon on June 1, about 30 people and volunteers had gathered in the parking lot outside the jail. Several of them were waiting for protesters to be released and had brought supplies, including food, water, coffee, cigarettes or a ride home.

Jared Ivey, 19, speaks to a crowd of protesters at Monroe Park in Richmond on June 2. (Photo by Maura Mazurowski)

Jared Ivey, 19, speaks to a crowd of protesters at Monroe Park in Richmond on June 2. (Photo by Maura Mazurowski)

Many attorneys were onsite as well, including Charlie Schmidt, who had received a call from a client just after midnight on June 1 about two friends who were arrested for a curfew violation the previous night.

Schmidt and fellow defense attorneys spent 14 hours interviewing protesters about their arrests and making their pro bono services known.

“The volunteers were welcoming people as they came out, and we were doing intakes and briefly getting a description of what the procedures were inside the jail,” Schmidt said.

Call to drop charges

According to Gaborik, court dates for protesters have been scheduled starting June 15 through the end of September. She said that “standard practice” is to hear cases for protesters in groups.

However, given the number of arrestees and continuing concerns on social distancing, she doubts that will happen.

“I’ll be surprised if they can get all 200 plus folks on the same day. I don’t know if the courts, especially under current conditions, can handle all these folks,” Gaborik said.

Social media posts began circulating last week calling for Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin to drop all charges against protesters.

“In accordance with our established procedures, my office is giving each case the individualized attention it deserves and each case will be resolved as appropriate based upon the evidence in each case,” McEachin said in an email.

Public Defender Tracy Paner said that it’s unlikely this will happen, as she’s never seen group charges against protesters be dropped.

Schmidt said it’s his goal to make sure they do.

“We will be pushing as attorneys to drop the charges. All of them. Because we think none of them are reasonable, none of them are appropriate, because no one was charged with anything but a curfew violation,” Schmidt said.

Email saralawrva@gmail.com for more information on pro bono services.