Several protesters from a May 30 rally had their cases bound over to the Grand Jury on Tuesday after senior judge Don Ash found there was probable cause that they blocked an EMS vehicle from going through an intersection and did not obey police orders. In addition to this, protest leaders Marie Mott and Cameron “C-Grimey” Williams had additional charges related to their role in a July 9 flag burning also bound over to the Grand Jury.
The protests were sparked by the police-involved death of George Floyd in May of 2020.
Floyd passed away after officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for several minutes, and his death sparked nationwide protests and conversations about law enforcement and race. Chauvin’s Minneapolis trial came to an end on Tuesday afternoon with the jury saying it had reached a verdict.
District Attorney Neal Pinkston handled the prosecution with assistance from prosecutor Andrew Coyle, and those charged included Ms. Mott, Williams, Grason Harvey, Joshua Tilford, Cedric Josey Jr. and Daniel Cash. Defendant Gerald Cowley will have his preliminary hearing heard on May 20, as he lives out-of-state, and his attorney said neither Cowley nor his attorney were aware there was going to be a hearing today.
There were three witnesses from the Chattanooga Police Department (CPD) and one EMS captain called up by DA Pinkston to the witness stand to testify about the events of May 30. An investigator from the sheriff’s office also testified about the flag burning, and Sheriff Jim Hammond himself even made a rare appearance in court to watch part of the proceedings.
CPD’s Caleb Hargraves was one of the first officers to respond to the intersection of Market and Main Street where his interactions with the protesters were shown to the court via bodycam footage. He could be seen yelling “Hey that’s EMS! You Idiots!” to the protesters. Officer Hargraves said he could not identify the people blocking the EMS vehicle from going forward, and said he did not have a role in arresting or identifying the protesters.
“I don’t recall who was standing in front of the vehicle,” Officer Hargraves said when asked if he recognized the defendants in the video (who were now sitting in court).
He and several other members of the police department had to answer questions about the legality of the defendants standing in the road. Officer John Tolson said the police department had an unofficial policy to allow protesters to protest in the street, and even blocked off streets in order to ensure their safety. But he told Judge Ash that once people started calling in and complaining about the protesters, that policy changed.
“We had three complaints within the first few minutes of the protests,” Officer Tolson said. He told the court that he responded to a call from a complainant that said protesters were trying to get into his vehicle and “would take action” if police did not respond.
Officer Tolson said he spoke to the protesters in the street, and told them they needed to disperse or else they would face arrest. He said he remembered speaking to both Ms. Mott and Williams, and said several supervisors also spoke to the protesters and told them to leave.
The attorneys for the defendants emphasized the sudden change in policy, pointing out that even while the events were unfolding, police were still blocking traffic in order to make sure protesters were safe. Officer Tolson also said he arrived after the fact, and later identified the defendants using drivers’ license photos and video stills. Attorney Brian Bush called attention to his affidavit, which attributed actions to a group, and did not say his particular client specifically did the action he was accused of.
EMS captain Marc Puglise said he was driving a vehicle that was not an ambulance, but still had flashing red and white lights and EMS decals on the side of the vehicle. He said EMS were usually told to take alternate routes during protests, but that he was not aware of protests taking place that night.
While two firetrucks with sirens and lights were easily allowed to go through the intersection, Cpt. Puglise stopped and sat at the intersection for several minutes. Video showed his lights were on, and he said he also had his sirens on until the police officer came by. The EMS captain said he went back to Broad Street and found an alternate route after he could not progress.
“I tried to veer around them, but they moved to block me. I said 'I’m gonna snap a picture of these guys,' ” Capt. Puglise said. He showed the defense and prosecution the picture, and he said he could not identify the people in the picture or match them with the defendants in the court.
HCSO’s investigator Brevin Cameron testified about the flag burning incident from a few months later. He played surveillance footage from Miller Park, which showed Marie Mott holding the flag before putting it on the ground. Others poured accelerant on the flag and then lit it on fire. Video showed Ms. Mott and Williams pouring a liquid accelerant on the flag after it was burning.
“It was not their property. They can burn their own property,” investigator Cameron said, noting that burning the flag would not have been an issue if it had been Ms. Mott’s or Williams’ own flag.
Before Judge Ash made his decision, attorney Fisher Wise asked to move his client’s decision back to May 20 along with Cowley’s. When he was cross-examining officer Tolson, it was revealed that CPD never alerted officer Tolson about a subpoena to turn over his bodycam footage from that day. While DA Pinkston argued a defendant is not entitled to discovery for a preliminary hearing, attorney Wise successfully argued that he should be allowed to view all relevant footage in order to rebut probable cause. Judge Ash agreed to sign a court order and moved his date to May 20.
Ms. Mott’s attorney McCracken Poston asked Judge Ash to dismiss the charges, saying that several other cities have dismissed protest-related charges from 2020. He cited the unrest in the country at the time and said such actions could be seen as understandable given the circumstances.
He and the other attorneys also argued that none of the officers could also specifically identify their clients as part of the group that blocked the intersection. Attorney Melodi Shekari said it was “very problematic” that CPD’s policy regarding protesting suddenly changed after it being unchanging for several weeks. One attorney also argued that because police had previously protected and blocked off streets for protesters, those protesters had legal privilege to be in the street. It was noted that the city was not giving out official protest permits at the time.
Judge Ash did not dismiss the majority of the charges, pointing to how low the burden of proof is for probable cause. He said binding the charges over to the Grand Jury is not a pronouncement of guilt, and that he agreed those were difficult days and that people have the right to protest.
Ms. Mott, Williams, Harvey, Tilford, and Josey Jr. are all charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway. Mott and Williams are facing vandalism and reckless burning charges. Judge Ash did drop Ms. Mott and Williams’ theft of property charges, and dismissed Williams’ inciting a riot charge, while keeping Ms. Mott’s inciting a riot charge. Cash and Cowley will be back in General Sessions court on May 20.