SCHENECTADY — A pair of community activists on trial for disorderly conduct for disrupting an event last year, where they directed numerous obscenities at city officials, were found guilty by a city court judge on Tuesday, setting what their lawyer called a dangerous precedent for free speech moving forward.
Mikayla Foster, 22 and Shaqueena Charles, 29, co-founders of the Schenectady-based Black Abolitionist Directive, were sentenced to timed served and ordered to pay administrative court fees for their role in disrupting an Aug. 26, 2021, event in the parking lot of the Trustco Bank at the corner of State Street and Brandywine Avenue, where city police were handing out bicycle helmets and other supplies to school children.
A number of public officials were in attendance, including Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, police Chief Eric Clifford, school Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. and Republican congressional candidate Liz Joy.
The pair, who are both Black and live in the city, livestreamed the nearly 30-minute interaction that led to the charges, where they confronted police about the death of Andrew Kearse in 2017 and hurled numerous obscenities at officials, including McCarthy, Clifford and Joy, and accused them of not caring about Black lives. A warrant was filed for the pair’s arrest a month following the incident.
Kearse, a Black man who died of heart failure while in police custody, first became unresponsive while being transported to police headquarters by officer Mark Weekes. He told the officer more than two dozen times that he was having trouble breathing.
A grand jury declined to indict Weekes following an investigation by the state’s Attorney General’s office, which said Kearse’s death “never should have happened” and recommended the department make changes to how it handles medical emergencies.
Charles and Foster, who can be heard on the recording announcing their intentions to disrupt the event, also criticized a local television news reporter and continued to use profanity after being asked to stop on multiple occasions by police and others in attendance.
Judge Carl Falotico said it was clear the pair were there to disrupt the event, but noted he didn’t believe they knew their actions were illegal and had intentions to better their community by making their voices heard.
But he noted the pair went beyond protected speech on multiple occasions by using abusive language targeted at certain individuals, which caused people at the event to leave. He said he hopes the pair continues to be active in the community, but change their approach moving forward.
“When you go to a children’s community event and shout obscenities at public officials, it’s unlikely that anyone who disagrees with you is going to change their mind,” he said. “While it may lead to a good reaction from the echo chamber that is social media, it is unlikely to advance your ability to be a community leader and to effectuate change.”
Adriel Colon-Casiano, a lawyer for Charles and Foster, said the ruling sets a dangerous precedent and raised concerns about how the ruling would be enforced in the future. He added that he believes that his clients were within their rights to confront the public officials at the public event.
“If the precedent says this political speech wasn’t sufficient, then reactionaries are going to seek to limit that interpretation until it applies to exactly the kind of people they don’t want to hear from and silence that voice,” he said.
Tuesday’s ruling is the latest to be handed down in series of charges facing Black Lives Matter activists throughout the Capital Region, including those in Albany and Saratoga Springs, following a series of protests that took place in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen recently dropped a disorderly conduct charge against the leader of Saratoga Springs Black Lives Matter Lexis Figuereo, two weeks after a judge dismissed a pair of charges against the activists for allegedly disrupting a pair of Saratoga Springs City Council meetings.
Foster said they were disappointed but not surprised by the ruling, adding that the charges were an attempt to silence their activism.
“This is the same sort of silencing, the same sort of maneuvers that they will make against Black activists and they always have,” Foster said. “There’s nothing shocking, astounding, new, innovative or creative about what happened here today.
“But what I will say about me and the Black Abolitionist Directive is that we will continue to disrupt white supremacy.”
Foster had previously been charged with criminal tampering, a misdemeanor, for allegedly using chalk to scrawl several messages on Schenectady police headquarters during a protest last summer. The charges were ultimately adjourned in contemplation of dismissal last June.
Charles agreed that the charges were an attempt to silence activism.
“I do believe that attempts like this on all activists are fearmongering and attempts to calm you down to aid the mechanisms that they’re doing to activists and young people that want to stand up,” Charles said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.