Madalena McNeil, a 28-year-old community organizer from Salt Lake City, Utah, could spend the rest of her life in prison for the unlikely crime of allegedly buying red spray before a protest. Seven other protesters could also face lifetime sentences for different riot charges.
On August 4, McNeil was arrested and kept in a jail cell for five hours for participating in a protest against police brutality on July 9. The protest was in response to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s decision to not press charges against two officers who shot and killed 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal in the city on May 23.
Charging documents against McNeil say that she bought red paint at a Home Depot before the July 9 demonstration. She is also accused of yelling at police officers during the protest and intentionally slamming into them, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The charges against McNeil were raised to the level of a first-degree felony due to the District Attorney’s decision to use a “gang enhancement” charge against her and seven other protesters who were accused of splashing paint and breaking windows. According to Utah’s code, this enhancement allows maximum punishment for “offenses committed in concert with two or more persons or in relation to a criminal street gang.” Under these charges, McNeil and others could face lifetime prison sentences.
“I was scared when I saw the charges, but I can’t say I was shocked,” McNeil told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “The judicial system in Utah is retaliatory. There are harsh punishments by the state against anyone who they view as a potential threat to their power.”
Still, the prospect of serving a lifetime sentence in prison for the inconsequential offense of buying spray paint is “hard to believe,” McNeil added.
“I have to remind myself every day that this is really happening and that I could go to prison for the rest of my life,” she said, “but it is real and scary and people should understand that it could happen to them too.”
McNeil participated in the July 9 demonstration as a volunteer in a local mutual aid group that distributes water, face masks, and hand sanitizers to protesters. A video she posted online shows police in riot gear charging at her and knocking her to the ground twice. McNeil says that officers have also struck her with riot shields several times. In a photo she shared with Hyperallergic, wound marks still appeared on her left arm.
“It was extremely violent on the part of the police,” she said. “It was at a level I haven’t seen before.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Utah said it found “a concerning pattern of viewpoint discrimination and disproportionate and militarized police action” during the July 9 protest and others in the state.
ACLU Legal Observers who watched the live-streamed footage of the protest concluded that officers with no identification smashed protesters with shields and batons, and shot at them with projectiles. The ACLU’s report adds that police “harassed protestors” and in at least one incident rammed into protestors with their riot shields without warning. In addition, police were seen targeting protest organizers in traffic stops after the protest ended, according to ACLU.
On the night of the protest, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown tweeted: “It was my sincere hope that the protest tonight would remain peaceful as it has night after night. Sadly, as they began to break windows at @SLCountyDA office [the District Attorney’s Office], we declared it an unlawful assembly.”
The ACLU said in response:
While protecting property may be a public safety concern, property never outweighs human life and preserving property does not justify tactics that inflict physical and emotional trauma on human beings. Many people were hurt as a result of law enforcement actions on July 9, and whether they were damaging property or not—and an overwhelming majority were not—this was not an acceptable result.
The result of these militarized responses to first amendment criticisms of police action, however, conveys a chilling message to protestors that criticism of law enforcement will not be tolerated.
Across the country, militarized police forces and local law enforcement agencies have escalated their crackdown on protests against racism and police brutality. In Portland, Oregon, a 32-year-old man is facing up to 20 years in prison on charges of setting arson at the city’s police headquarters.
“This example is just one of the hundreds happening across the country attempts to silence voices of dissent,” said McNeil. “What happened to me can happen to anyone in this country. There’s a nationwide problem of prosecutorial and state overreach.”
Two days after the arrest, McNeil was asked to resign from her job at a local nonprofit. “There was a concern that my work and my voice didn’t align with the job I did at the nonprofit,” she explained.
McNeil’s court appearance is expected in October, although she wasn’t officially summoned yet. She said that with a pending felony on her record, she will face difficulty in finding another job in the coming months.
In an interview with the Associated Presse (AP), Gill sent a mixed message about the charges. “I don’t think anyone is going to be going to prison on this,” said the District Attorney. However, he added, “There’s [sic] some people who want to engage in protest, but they want to be absolved of any behavior. This is not about protest, this is about people who are engaging in criminal conduct.”
McNeil says she was not reassured by Gill’s words and that this escalation of measures will have consequences beyond her individual case.
“Even if we get all charges dropped, we’ll still be living with a system that is so brutal and that can derail someone’s entire life and that’s terrifying,” she said.