Erie: Federal Authorities Aggressively Persecute Protester by Stretching Law

By Peter Cherry

Melquan Barnett, a 28-year old out-of-work Black forklift operator in Erie, Pennsylvania, is facing heightened federal charges in connection to the May Uprisings. Barnett’s case is one of 319 cases of protest-related vandalism nationwide that the U.S. Attorney office has upgraded to felony charges using intentionally malleable laws, all for the purpose of striking fear into protestors and those supporting the mass movements against police brutality.

Melquan Barnett (Photographer: Da’Shaunae Marisa, Reveal News)

On Saturday June 30, during the waves of nationwide rebellions, a crowd of people gathered outside the Erie police station and began banging on the windows. When somebody threw a rock, riot police emerged and occupied Perry Square Park. In the street battle that followed the police attacked the crowd with tear gas and mace. In one video that made international news, Officer Marc Nelson kicked the face of a protestor who was handcuffed and sitting on the ground. Protestors fought back by throwing frozen water bottles and live fireworks.

Just a few blocks away, a small fire was lit inside a coffee shop named Ember+Forge, after two windows were smashed, causing minor fire damage to a table.

In the following days, Police Chief Dan Spizarny announced that their investigators’ suspect for the coffee shop fire was Melquan Barnett. The police claimed that Barnett was the alleged culprit based on video posted on Facebook. “There’s an image that looks like him, it doesn’t mean that’s Mr. Barnett,” his lawyer, Charles Sunwabe, noted.

Barnett turned himself in and was charged with five felonies and a misdemeanor, including two counts of arson, rioting, criminal mischief, and risking catastrophe to property. Soon after federal agents approached the owner of Ember+Forge, Hannah Kirby, and asked questions around obscure details of her business, such as where she purchased her to-go cups and if she sold gift cards online.

May 30 protest in Erie

It was then announced just days after his arrest by U.S. Attorney Scott Brady that Barnett’s charges would be upgraded to felony arson charges, using the fact that Kirby sources her to-go cups from Buffalo, New York and conducts business online, arguing that Ember+Forge was in fact an interstate business. This is an established strategy of federal enforcement to claim standing in criminal cases, and why even the most innocuous questions posed by law enforcement should not be answered and legal representation always secured.

Melquan Barnett is a father of two sons, 6 and 9, and spends time coaching his younger son’s football team and cooking for elderly women in his East Erie neighborhood. Barnett was working as a forklift operator before the economic crisis started and until he was laid off. As the pandemic and economic depression worsened, there was less work available. Barnett was one of many millions of people spurred to action when George Floyd was murdered.

Erie, a Rust Belt city in northwestern Pennsylvania, is an economically depressed town which saw two-thirds of its manufacturing jobs and a quarter of its population shrink as imperialism relocated much industry elsewhere. One out of ten Black workers are unemployed and 38% of the Black population lives below the poverty line. The Erie Police Department has a long and racist history of targeting and incarcerating Black working class communities. “Some might call it a little racist town,” Melquan Barnett told Reveal News.

Even while Barnett’s state charges have been downgraded to misdemeanors and citations such as criminal mischief and failure to disperse, the standard of federal courts and charges are different. Barnett faces anywhere in between 5 to 20 years of a mandatory minimum sentence if convicted. This is part of an effort on the part of President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr to aggressively find any legal reasoning possible to pursue aggressive cases against protestors.

Barnett has since pleaded not guilty and rejected a plea offer, with his application for release being accepted with the condition of him being under house arrest until his trial date.

Kirby has stated her own opposition to the federal persecution for what she herself sees as minimal damage to her business, pointing out how the reactionary imperialist state values private property over the lives of workers, asking, “We’re going to value 10 years of his life at less than a window or less than a tabletop that got charred?”

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