U of MN Student Amina McCaskill Overcharged in I-94 Arrests
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
U of MN Student Amina McCaskill Overcharged in I-94 Arrests
Amina McCaskill speaks at Morrill Hall on the U of M campus on 11/08/20.
Photo Credit: Brad Sigal. A coalition of over 30 left-leaning activist groups, including pro-Environmental, Immigrant Rights, Labor Union, Anti-War, U of MN student groups, The Movement for Black Lives, and others met and marched in a pro-democracy demonstration on November 4th in Minneapolis, a day after election day. The political action had been planned for over a month and was tightly organized with escort vehicles, support trucks, street medics, and safety marshals. Even FOX News announced the demonstration a day in advance, stating that it would take place regardless of the election results. A large group of media from a variety of outlets were on hand to capture footage and images of the speakers as they called for every vote to be counted. Many of the organizers of these politically active community groups had been working to mobilize voters for weeks in their communities, and they carried signs and wore clothing emblazoned with voting slogans. Hundreds of people from all over the city joined the rally and march. Amina McCaskill arrived at the demonstration with two friends. Like many college-age Twin Citians, Amina felt energized by the prospect of positive change and felt the need to add her own voice. "I was excited (at the beginning of the march)," Amina said. "I was happy to stand up. We wanted to demonstrate peacefully, nobody was expecting any trouble." She had attended a few peaceful marches over the summer. This march began, like so many others since the murder of George Floyd, with inspiring speeches and calls for action. The demonstrators began to march behind the sound truck, led by the chant leaders, who carried microphones and bullhorns. The leaders of this demonstration planned to march onto a major roadway, aware that the temporary shutdown would bring added attention to their cause. But this march was close to 1000 people, with elderly participants and small children. They would get on the Eastbound I-94 freeway at Cedar-Riverside with the escort vehicles blocking traffic behind them, walk a few city blocks on the closed highway, and then immediately exit the freeway at the 25th Avenue exit. They would loop back through the West Bank neighborhood at a moderate pace to accommodate all march participants, and finish where they started. It was a big march, but a short one. It should just take a couple of hours or so, including speeches.
Amina McCaskill (in white hoodie) marching with other demonstrators in the Cedar-Riverside area on 11/04/20. Photo Credit: Phil Ward. However, things would not go according to the organizers' plan, and tonight would be different from countless similar protests and political actions since May. The peaceful demonstration would be met by an enormous show of police force, and would result in the largest mass arrest in Minnesota state history. BLM leaders were at the front of the march, on foot and in support vehicles slowed to the pace of the slowest march participant. As they approached the 25th street exit, a line of police officers on foot scurried across the ramp to block the march. Nekima Levy Armstrong, an attorney and longtime community activist, thought at first that police may have been under orders to block or clear adjacent traffic. Bur then more police began to arrive, and it became clear they would not be allowed to pass. When Levy Armstrong approached the police line with other movement leaders, she asked for the name of the commanding officer, and demanded that police forces move to allow the march off of the freeway. Police officers refused to move, and they would not dialogue with anyone.
Nekima Levy Armstrong (foreground) and other BLM leaders attempt to talk to police on I-94 photo credit: KingDemetrius Pendleton By now, officers from State Patrol, MPD, SWAT, and University of MN police were all lining up behind and in front of the protest march. Hundreds of officers were forming up with batons and firearms, and it was unclear who was in overall command of the various agencies. "It was the most police action I'd ever seen," said Amina, who said she and the other demonstrators at first were intimidated by the show of police force. "There were little kids," said Amina. "It was a scary feeling, I didn't know whether they were going to start shooting." Police vehicles including armored military bearcats sped onto Westbound I-94 and soon police had blocked off the freeway in the opposite direction as well. MPD officers with bikes formed up in a line against the freeway barrier, flanking the march, alongside State Patrol officers in full tactical gear, carrying long guns with silencers and live rounds. Mounted officers on horseback patrolled the sides of the freeway. When demonstrators attempted to scale the fences, they were pushed back onto the roadway. The protest had been completely kettled. The police crowd control method of "kettling"-- trapping pedestrians in an area with no means of escape, often for extended periods of time, is controversial and in most cases illegal. It can also be very dangerous for both protesters and police because it can increase tensions and force confrontations between the groups, rather than giving unarmed people a way to exit. It is even more dangerous during a pandemic, where people are forced to crowd together for long periods of time while being detained. Protesters in other cities have brought lawsuits through the ACLU after violent kettling escalations by police, with settlements of $6.2 million in Chicago and $16.5 million in Toronto.
Demonstrators await mass arrests on I-94 Photo credit KingDemetrius Pendleton On I-94, the movement organizers were getting on their phones to try to contact elected officials and city personnel. Amina stood with the other demonstrators. Although they were surrounded by police, Amina says she felt uplifted by the positive mood of the large crowd. "I felt safe at that time," she says. After a while, a DJ played music from the sound truck, and the demonstrators danced as they waited to be arrested. There would be no violence between protesters and police on I-94. The police detained the group for more than five hours, and arrested 646 people, including Amina. Most of those arrested had their belongings confiscated and then were cuffed, searched, then had their mugshot taken and were issued a citation, and finally were loaded onto buses which dropped them off in various locations around the city, in the middle of the night. Mounted police did mace the crowds which assembled along the freeway overlooks and on apartment balconies which overlooked the freeway. Onlookers were dispersed violently with clubs, according to witnesses, and it is alleged that police also entered these same apartment buildings.
Police with silenced long guns on I-94. Photo credit: Phil Ward
Police formation on I-94. Photo credit: Louie Tran
Police officers came forward to the group of demonstrators and pulled individuals away one by one. Eventually, they took Amina away from her friends. Describing her own arrest, Amina says the officers asked her the same questions over and over. They asked for her ID, and she put down her bag, and told the officers she would reach into her bag for her wallet. "How about we just take your stuff," officers responded. They took Amina's bag and searched it without her permission. She still hasn't gotten it back. Then the officers cuffed her hands behind her back before she could put her mask back on, and they would not put her mask on for her. She was subjected to a humiliating personal search in front of a mixed gender group of officers. Her hair was searched. Instead of being cited, bussed away from the protest and released, Amina was brought alone to jail. She was fingerprinted and her mug shot was taken. She was scared when she was questioned again, and felt that the officers were asking leading, manipulative questions. A female officer displayed an ultrasound picture, and demanded to know if it was Amina's. Amina told he it was not her ultrasound. "Then they threw me into isolation." Amina recalls. A rock hard piece of bread and a rotten apple sat on a plate in the cell where Amina was held. She had no idea if the inedible food had been there for days or weeks. "I was alone and scared, with no info on any charges. I didn't feel safe or protected (by police) at all. I felt like I could die behind closed doors." After 5-6 hours, police brought Amina out of the isolation cell for pre-trial proceedings. For the first time, Amina learned that charges against her included 4th degree assault on an officer and 2nd degree Riot armed with a dangerous weapon--a felony. 19 years old, with a clean criminal record, Amina was stunned. She had not attacked any police officers, and had no weapons. A conviction could ruin her life. Even the legal staff at the pre-trial seemed a little perplexed at the charges. Someone remarked that Amina seemed over-charged, and eventually she was released with no posted bail. When Amina left the jail, she found that both of her friends with whom she had attended the demonstration had been waiting for her the entire time. Along with them were people she had never met before-- people from the movement for Black Lives. They wanted to make sure she was ok. That same day, there was a press conference in front of the Minnesota Governor's mansion, and the Black women leading the movement for Black Lives spoke, calling for the charges against Amina and all of the other I-94 protesters to be dropped. Governor Walz had met with many of them recently inside the mansion, where they demanded an end to police brutality. The women shared personal stories about the loss of community members and their own family members to police violence, and the Governor seemed to sympathize with their feelings, said he was on their side, and promised change. Following the meeting with the Governor, many of the activists returned to community organization efforts, including getting out the vote in the days leading up to the presidential election. They were instrumental in motivating voters to turn out in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, and DFL candidates up and down the ballot, including Tina Smith, benefited from the votes.
Activists call for charges to be dropped at a press conference outside the Governor's mansion on Nov 5th. Photo credit: Phil Ward But on the day after the election, after Walz' party had collected the votes of this broad coalition of communities of color, the demonstrators were trapped by police on I-94. The leaders of the march-- the same community organizers who had been courted by the Governor and other elected officials-- could not raise these same people on the phone. Only a few short hours ago they had been delivering speeches to local news crews demanding that their votes for DFL candidates be counted, and now the sense of betrayal was galling. The heads of the various police agencies denied responsibility and passed the buck. Eventually, Commissioner John Harrington would admit that it was his decision to kettle the protesters on I-94, and Governor Walz would chime in saying that the police escalation and mass arrest was an attempt to "teach them a lesson" and prevent large organized marches in the future. Instead of teaching demonstrators a lesson, the mishandling of the I-94 demonstration appears to have galvanized the protesters to fight harder. Those arrested on the highway say they are more determined than ever, and report feeling more united. Organizers have reported that many people who are brand new to social justice movements have been spurred to come out and join as a result of seeing the militarized police crackdown on a peaceful protest. Activists for Black Lives, Native Lives, Immigrant Rights, Labor Unionists, and others have pledged to turn out for each other's events and support each other. Amina spoke to a group of about 200 onlookers at a "Drop the Charges" political action on the University of Minnesota campus on November 8th. She and other speakers called on Joan Gabel, the University President, to support the U of MN students, workers and faculty who were arrested, and use her position to pressure Governor Walz to drop the charges. They also demanded that campus Police no longer work for MPD in support roles. Amina says she intends to fight the charges unless they are dropped for everyone. A Gofundme has been started to help with her legal fees. She feels like her purpose has become more clear after her arrest. She and her friends want to work with charter schools. "I want to fight for my people, more change needs to be done," she says. "My voice is another voice that they are trying to silence... and it will not work." After the police response to the protest on I-94, one thing became clear to her. "This is not a free country."