A 19-year-old protester arrested in Riverfront Park in a July 4 confrontation with a police officer is expected to plead guilty to riot, a misdemeanor charge, in a court appearance this week.
Zack St. John – a musician and restaurant worker who became the poster boy for self-described anarchists protesting police brutality – is taking a plea bargain being offered by city prosecutors, his attorney Frank Cikutovich said Tuesday.
St. John was arrested in the park about 6 p.m. on July 4, as police were photographing a group of mostly young protesters who had marched from Peaceful Valley into downtown, then set up a large American flag on the ground in the Clocktower Meadow.
Police Officer Jay Kernkamp said St. John grabbed him by the throat, choking him almost to the point of losing consciousness. St. John said he was sitting on a bucket when he was pushed from behind, got up and demanded the name and badge number of the officer he believed pushed him, and was taken to the ground by police.
Photos and videos of the demonstration failed to show clear evidence supporting either version of events, Cikutovich said. “We’ve got one word against another word,” he said.
After St. John’s arrest, police ordered protesters to leave the park, then arrested 17 of them on misdemeanor counts of trespassing and failing to disperse. Those cases are still pending, and St. John’s charge of assaulting a police officer was the only felony.
Cikutovich said he thought the case was so close that a trial would have been a “coin flip.” The consequences of being convicted of a felony could have made him ineligible for student loans and voting.
“It was up to Zack whether he wanted to flip a coin for his future,” Cikutovich said. St. John is scheduled to enter a plea Thursday afternoon in Spokane County Superior Court.
Attorneys for the other protesters, who came to be known as the Spokane 17, had asked a Spokane County district judge to dismiss the misdemeanor charges on the grounds that their actions were protected by First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly.
But Judge Annette Plese refused earlier this month, saying the evidence she had seen so far from police indicated the protesters were being disruptive in the park and creating a risk to the public. They would have to back up their First Amendment claims at trial, she said.
John Clark, an attorney for some protesters, said his clients were pleased that St. John accepted a plea bargain for a misdemeanor charge. While it may have been a boost for their cases if St. John had been found not guilty of the assault, the issues are complex and there was no guarantee that would happen, Clark said.
“All of the kids were very concerned that Mr. St. John not get a felony out of this,” Clark said. “Now we can get on with resolving our cases.”
Last summer after the arrests, some of the protesters from the park were joined by other civil rights activists in staging other demonstrations about police overreaction to the incident in the park. Dozens of attorneys volunteered their time to defend the Spokane 17 as a show of support for their belief that the group had a right to protest in the park on July 4. Vandals spray painted some downtown businesses with messages supporting St. John, actions which he denounced after one of his court appearances. Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick held a public forum and answered questions about police procedures, with some of the questions coming from protesters.
Months later, tempers have cooled, and Clark is talking of the cases being resolved with “all sides learning from this and moving forward.”
He said attorneys are looking for a solution that helps Spokane avoid years of litigation over protests similar to what Seattle still faces from the 1999 demonstrations sparked by the World Trade Organization meeting in that city.