The summer of 2020 was marked by protests for racial justice following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
Residents of Chelsea, a small town of around 5,000 people, 95% of whom are white, made their voices heard with marches and protests of their own. The Chelsea Police Department issued at least 18 tickets to those protesters for blocking the road.
Last night, Chelsea City Council recommended that Police Chief Ed Toth drop the charges against the protestors.
The majority of Chelsea residents who spoke during the public comment portion were in favor of dropping the charges. Among those who spoke were parents of kids involved in Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth, or ARCY. Many of those members organized the protests and speeches, and were subsequently issued tickets.
One of those parents was Priya King, mother to Mya King, a Chelsea high schooler who received a ticket. Mya reported being punched in the face by a woman during one of the protests, and then experiencing racist treatment by a Chelsea police officer when answering questions about the incident.
"She's beyond her years. She lends her voice to those who are sometimes marginalized, she marched for equality for Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights this past summer. We are very proud of her," King said of her daughter. "However, since she has gotten her ticket, she's beginning to doubt her voice. By receiving her ticket, she feels like she's being punished for speaking out for a better world. We need to work with our youth, not against them. Young men and women like Mya should be allowed to express their voices in public, without fear of retribution."
Another parent, Christine Peiter, was issued a ticket along with her 14-year-old high schooler and her 78-year-old stepfather. She says the police response to the protests was very revealing.
"Systemic racism is alive in our community and police department, and [Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth] and their supporters are being punished for it by a vindictive police department and city government. Whether it is a punch in the park, the Rick Cornell memes and racist comments to a Chelsea youth, or multiple citations issued on spotty evidence collected by a militaristic police department, the public perception is clear: Chelsea has a problem." Peiter said the city's response to the summer's events was even more disappointing, adding, "The way Chelsea government and police have chosen to respond is not to admit mistakes and redress the issues, it is to dig in their heels and double down to try to make the issues go away. This tact has simply drawn more attention to the problems and brought increased notoriety to our community."
The decision to recommend that the police drop the charges was preceded by a lengthy debate about the original language of the agenda item: "Direct Chelsea Police to Repeal Citations issued for Impeding Traffic to Protestors during Summer 2020." Council members asked city attorney Peter Flintoft if they actually had the power to direct the police to do just that.
Chelsea Mayor Melissa Johnson expressed doubts that she or city council had the power to do that.
"The way our charter is written, I don’t see that we have the authority to direct the police department to do anything. I think our role is in hiring the police department and providing prospective policy," she said.
Council member Tony Ianelli, who originally put forth the motion, felt differently.
"With all due respect to the charter, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, they say, quote, ‘Although not generally acknowledged by the public, police agencies have always had civilian oversight through elected mayors, city council, prosecutors, courts, and state and federal legislation,’" Iannelli said. "I feel that City Council has some oversight over the actions of the police department. And making this recommendation this evening would be covered by that."
Flintoft replied, "A recommendation is one thing, an order is another. Your motion is to direct the chief to rescind and refund all citations. I don’t think you can refund, that’s for the court to do that if there’s been any fine pay. If you direct him to rescind, that’s an order."
Ianelli amended the language of the motion to "recommend" rather than "direct," and the council passed it on a unanimous vote.
Council member Jen Kwas expressed her support for the motion.
"I look back at history like a lot of the residents have brought up, and I think how many laws we've overturned and we’ve changed because they were wrong. Yes, they’re laws, but we don’t abide by these racist laws any longer," she said.
Chelsea Police Chief Ed Toth did not respond to a request for comment.