A year after cops arrested them at an anti-Trump protest, two activists still didn’t get the “speedy” justice they were seeking in court Friday — but they did get mixed up in another clash that almost led to more protester arrests.
That all occurred Friday both inside and outside the state Superior Court building on Elm Street.
Norman Clement, 67, a veteran political organizer, and Nathan Blair, 27, a dreadlocked barista active in nonviolent protest movements, showed up in court hoping the state’s attorney would finally dismiss the charges pending against them dating from a controversial arrest by state cops a full year ago. Refusing to take plea deals, they’ve returned over and over again to court for rescheduled or postponed pretrial proceedings.
They sought Friday at least to secure a trial date, where they could present their case to a jury.
Neither of those outcomes happened. Prosecutors did offer a deal, saying the defendants could plead out to creating a public disturbance, an infraction that carries only a $35 fine and five hours of community service. Clement and Blair — who maintain their innocence and argue that they were victims of trumped-up charges and police misconduct — turned that option down. (Click here to read a full story about Blair’s case.)
But while both defendants were considering the plea bargain inside 121 Elm St.’s marble atrium, a true public disturbance was taking place on the courthouse steps outside.
Two counter-protestors from Hartford with experience creating fake Facebook accounts had shown up to troll Clement, waving anti-Clement signs with slogans like ““Rapists for Norm.” Supporters of Clement and Blair were on hand, too. A clash ensued, ending with a young woman sprawled on the ground and a sign crumpled in the trash, and a counter-protestor handcuffed by police.
The charges against Clement and Blair date back to a protest on Feb. 4, 2017, when nearly 200 demonstrators without a permit swarmed Route 34 in opposition to Trump’s executive orders about a travel ban for seven Muslim countries and a wall on the Mexican border. Clement, carrying a bullhorn, directed the crowd, which blocked traffic on a state road to the hospital.
After the march turned back toward the Green, local police said Blair wouldn’t move out of the roadway and took him down. Clement, through his megaphone, asked why Blair had been arrested. State cops chased him and pepper-sprayed him several times and set a police dog on him — a dog who ended up biting local police instead. Clement later went to the hospital for shoulder injuries.
Clement was charged with four misdemeanors and an infraction: incitement of a riot, interference with arrest, breach of peace, disorderly conduct and negligent use of the highway by a pedestrian. Blair was charged with one misdemeanor: disorderly conduct. Eyewitness critics called it a “police riot”; police officials called for better future communication between state and city cops and better intelligence gathering to prevent unforeseen demonstrations from getting out of control.
Before their 15th appearance on the court’s docket Friday, Clement and Blair held a press conference and rally on the courthouse steps asking for a speedy resolution to their cases.
“We are asking people in New Haven to stand with us to make a demand that all charges against these peaceful protesters who did absolutely nothing wrong be dropped,” one speaker, IV, told the crowd of about 15 people. “We need to send a clear message to state police and New Haven police — any police in the state — that we will not tolerate abuses against our elders. We will not tolerate abuses against young black men. And we will absolutely not tolerate police impinging on our right to gather peacefully to protest.”
Clement said he believes the state is drawing out the case because it fears a federal lawsuit for police brutality. (No civil case has been filed, Clement stressed.) He said a state police internal review of the handling of the protest and his arrest — which cleared state cops of violating procedures but called for extra training to handle these situations better — was “full of lies” and was contradicted by video evidence. (Click here to read a story about the state police report.)
That’s when two counter-protestors rolled up.
Stephen Schafer and Michael Picard, two libertarians who travel across the Northeast trolling groups that they say limit free speech, marched back and forth on the sidewalk, carrying yellow signs. One said, “Rapists for Norm.” The other said, “No to Pineapple Pizza,” a non-sequitur referencing an Internet debate about whether Hawaiian pizza is good.
A handful of Clement’s supporters descended the courthouse steps and tried to block out the counter-protesters’ signs. Schafer tried to juke them out, running around them in circles and yelling.
Clement knew the two trolls. He said they’d tried to hack his Facebook; both denied this allegation. But Schafer later admitted to the Independent that he did create a fake Facebook account for one of Clement’s close friends, another anti-fascist organizer. Clement said members of the alt-right harassed the person by phone over the two weeks it took to get the sham profile taken down.
“I might get in trouble again today,” Clement said, before he handed the mic over to Jesus Morales Sanchez, an organizer for Unidad Latina en Acción.
That’s when one of Clement’s supporters hit the ground. Schafer said they’d tried to grab his sign, and he tugged back. Multiple witnesses said Schafer pushed her. He claimed that the supporter was faking it, “like in basketball, when they flop to get the free-throw point.”
Three police officers tried to separate the groups. The cops told the trolls to remain peaceful; they told Clement’s supporters that they hadn’t witnessed an assault.
One of Clement’s supporters then ripped the sign out of Schafer’s hands for good. She ran up the steps and dumped it in the trash. Police gave her a verbal warning, while they took a complaint from the protestor who’d hit the ground.
The police then put Schafer in handcuffs, detaining him but not actually arresting him. They said they’d need to arrest the offenders from both camps to go ahead with formal charges, according to both sides.
Schafer and Picard later explained that they try to provoke groups of all ideologies. They’ve made scenes with left-wing antifa and right-wing Trumpkins. Last May, they showed up at a Trump rally in New London, wearing traditional Middle Eastern garb and carrying a sign that read, “Let Terrorists In.” They dragged the American flag on the ground, despite a Navy veteran saying it bothered him. An elderly biker pushed Schafer over.
“We’re not alt-right trolls,” Schafer said. “We’re just trolls.”
“We support our cause vigorously,” Picard said. “The one commonality at both ends of the political spectrum is that they want to suppress the other side.”
A few years ago, Picard had stood in front of a drunk-driving checkpoint in Hartford with a sign that said, “Cops Ahead” with a swastika over one letter. State police confiscated his phone. While it was still recording, the troopers said, “Gotta cover our ass,” as they talked about falsifying the report to stick extra charges on him. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut is now suing the state police on Picard’s behalf.
Given that both sides had negative interactions with state troopers, why were these two out-of-towners there to antagonize, rather than stand with the defendants?
“They only support their own speech,” Schafer said. “They only want to hear themselves speaking. They were happy when we were arrested.”
Schafer did concede that his “Rapists for Norm” sign was in bad taste. “It wasn’t as funny as I thought it’d be,” he said. “The pineapple pizza sign was better.” Was he saying he made a mistake? Schafer paused. “I apologize,” he told the Independent. “I’m sorry.”
In a statement Friday afternoon, the ANSWER Coalition, which organized the rally for Clement, said, “We denounce these cowardly attempts to interrupt and shut down events in support of our community. We will not be intimidated and will continue to do this work, and stand by anyone who comes out to support it.”
Clement and Blair, meanwhile, went through security, getting away from the commotion outside. Clement said he’d been afraid to organize any recent protests because he didn’t know if the cops would target him again. “I can’t be out doing what I do, what I have been doing for years” Clement said. “We could be out on the streets every day, the way things are going.”
But he also didn’t want more charges showing up on his record.
The existing ones had been bad enough, he went on. Clement said he’d lost gigs as a painter because of his many court dates, and he’d been barred from driving for Lyft because of the pending case.
Clement wanted a “clean slate” before he started being a vocal activist again, but he didn’t know when he’d get that.
“I don’t want to wait another year with this hanging over my head,” Clement said. “I didn’t think it would be, but I’m tired of it: coming back, rehashing everything in my mind, taking off work.”
After a deal came down from the state’s attorney’s office, Clement and Blair talked it over with their lawyer. They decided not to take it, saying they’d rather fight the charges. Their lawyer told the judge that his clients needed more time.
Paul Garlinghouse, the defense attorney, said he understood where Clement and Blair were coming from. He’d just seen a production of “The Crucible” the night before, and he heard John Proctor’s cries echo in his clients’ defiance. “How may I live without my name?” the character says in refusing to participate in the witch trials.
To move the case forward, Garlinghouse could technically cite the Constitutional guarantee of a “speedy trial.” According to state law, anyone who pleads not guilty can ask a judge to fast-track a trial if one hasn’t already started within a year of the arrest. But the expedited trial happens rapidly, giving lawyers only 30 days to prepare — a little too quickly to develop a solid case, Garlinghouse said.
In the meantime, Garlinghouse said he’s looking at other legal options. Clement and Blair are due back in court on Mar. 9.