Prosecutors, Lawmakers Seek Harsh Penalties For Those Who Destroy Property In Protests
Eric Ruffin spoke into a microphone and expressed his innocence.
The Facebook Live video, captioned “Interview Talking About Me Facing 30 Years And My Life,” was Ruffin’s public response to being charged as a terrorist under the Oklahoma law.
“I’m a terrorist? Y’all had a whole building get blown up down here and you want to talk and say I’m a terrorist?” asked Ruffin, an Oklahoma City entertainer, in a video that has since been deleted. “There’s a memorial downtown of the work that a terrorist did.”
An affidavit filed by police alleges that during a Black Lives Matter protest on May 30, Ruffin encouraged the destruction of a business and the burning of an Oklahoma County sheriff vehicle while broadcasting both incidents on Facebook. Police say Ruffin is heard off camera calling for the group to burn the building, saying C.J. Bail Bonds was “fixing to go.”
Ruffin, who faces a preliminary hearing on Dec.14, is one of three people charged under the Oklahoma Anti-Terrorism Act for their alleged roles in destruction that took place during the protest. Others were charged with lesser crimes like rioting for throwing rocks that caused damage to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. One person was charged with assault and battery upon a police officer.
The terrorism charges could mean up to life in prison. A rioting charge however would carry the lesser time of two to 20 years.
Rev. Sheri Dickerson, director of Black Lives Matter Oklahoma City, said the charges under the anti-terrorism act are an intimidation tactic and state-sanctioned violence against those practicing their inalienable rights of free speech, protest and assembly.
“It’s an abuse and an overreach of power. It’s not something that we’re not accustomed to seeing, especially within the Oklahoma County judicial system,” Dickerson said.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has stood by the charges, saying the accused “subverted peaceful protests and impaired the open discussion regarding race in our country.”
“When you act like a terrorist, you will be treated like a terrorist,” District Attorney David Prater told The Oklahoman in June.
The Push For More Punitive Measures
Earlier this month, Prater reduced charges against five people who had been accused of inciting a riot in June. They were arrested after a confrontation with police while painting a street mural with the words “Black Lives Matter” outside of the Oklahoma City Police Department. The individuals pled guilty to the lesser misdemeanor charge of obstructing an officer.
Tamara Piety, University of Tulsa law professor and First Amendment scholar, said that in the current cases it seems terrorism laws are being used to ratchet up the penalties for things that in different circumstances would have serious penalties anyway.
Over the past few months, lawmakers and prosecutors across the country have considered more punitive actions for crimes committed at protests. Nationally, Attorney General William Barr told federal prosecutors last month that they should consider charging rioters with sedition.
At the state level, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced a bill that would charge protesters with felonies for damaging property or inflicting injuries, sentence them to mandatory jail time for hitting officers and bar them from receiving state benefits or working for the state. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott laid out legislative proposals to increase penalties and create new laws that would require jail time for offenses committed at protests.
In Oklahoma, State Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, is preparing to propose legislation that creates harsher penalties for those who destroy property during protests. Standridge is in the midst of a reelection campaign where law and order is a major issue.
The Oklahoma Anti-Terrorism Act was created in 2002, seven years after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The bombing is regarded as the nation’s single worst act of domestic terrorism, killing 168 people and injuring approximately 850. The tragedy moved the moved national legislatures to focus on the creation of domestic terrorism laws.
The law defines terrorism as “one or more kidnappings or other act of violence, or a series of acts of violence, resulting in damage to property, personal injury or death, or the threat of such act or acts that appear to be intended: a. to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, b. to influence the policy or conduct of a government by intimidation or coercion, or c. in retaliation for the policy or conduct of a government by intimidation or coercion”.
The law also states that “peaceful picketing or boycotts and other nonviolent action shall not be considered terrorism.”
‘An Unconstitutional Use of Prosecutorial Discretion’
Protests against police brutality spread across the country this summer following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, by a white police officer. The widely circulated video of Floyd’s death which sparked global outrage, shows former officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes.
On the evening of May 30, hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters gathered at the intersection of NW 23rd and Classen Boulevard. The crowd held signs referencing police brutality and marched from the intersection to the Plaza District before returning through NW 23rd and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Around 11 p.m., about four hours into the protest, several hundred people arrived at Oklahoma City Police Department headquarters where tensions rose. Police wore riot gear and ordered the crowd to leave.
According to court documents, as police began to fire tear gas into the crowd, Ruffin filmed the vandalism of CJ’s Bail Bonds while saying that everyone who kills Black people “needs to die.”
On his video from earlier this month, Ruffin denied that the voice identified in the video from the protest was his. Efforts to contact Ruffin and his attorney were unsuccessful.
Isael Antonio Ortiz, 21, was charged with terrorism, attempted arson of CJ’s Bail Bonds, and setting an Oklahoma County sheriff’s van on fire along with Ruffin. Ortiz is on probation after pleading guilty to endangering others while attempting to elude the police last year. He is also facing a drive-by shooting charge from last year.
Malachai Davis,18, was charged with terrorism and property destruction for allegedly breaking the windows of CJ’s Bail Bonds according to a court document. Davis was identified from Ruffin’s Facebook Live video. According to the court document, Davis was outside the bail bonds business with brass knuckles and a bloody hand.
The night of the protest, Carol Knight of CJ’s Bail Bonds had been at home watching a live feed of the protest outside her building. She received a phone call telling her the windows of her business were being broken.
When she got there shortly after midnight, Knight said the windows were gone and firefighters were putting out the fire. She sat outside all night armed, protecting her building which incurred $8,850 dollars worth of damage, according to court records.
“Those were terrorists. And they were running around terrorizing citizens. They terrorized me listening to them, listening to what they were doing to my property. That was terrorizing. There’s no other word,” Knight said.
Billy Coyle, Ortiz’s criminal defense attorney, said that his client’s actions took place after police fired rubber bullets and tear gas.
Mark Myers, the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s office public information officer, said that during the protests the department had a positive interaction with protesters. Myers, in an email, said that they engaged in conversation and took a knee in front of the Oklahoma County Jail to pray with protesters. Myers said that when protests became violent they didn’t force available.
Megan Lambert, an attorney with the ACLU, said the domestic terrorism act itself is constitutionally suspect because of its vagueness.
Prater’s office was contacted numerous times for this story and did not respond to requests for comment.
“The fact that he is using his prosecutorial discretion to levy the harshest charges available is an obvious attempt to both silence protesters and to punish black leaders for speaking out. And that is an unconstitutional use of prosecutorial discretion,” Lambert said.
Going ‘Way Too Far To Make A Point’
Now, legislative action will make it easier to penalize those that destroy property during protests.
State Sen. Standridge said he will propose legislation to ensure financial accountability for those who destroy property during a protest. Legislators can formally start filing legislation for the 2021 session on Nov. 15.
Standridge said that he couldn’t comment on the current cases regarding terrorism charges. However, he did speak with Carol Knight of CJ’s Bail Bonds. Knight told him that she is still recovering from the damage to her business.
“She was completely innocent and was accosted and her business was greatly damaged and if she hadn’t come on the scene, they would have burned it down,” Standridge said “And because somebody wants to go way too far to make a point, they destroyed her life.”
Standridge said that while there are existing laws in Oklahoma to penalize rioters, they hinge on getting convictions for terrorist acts, something Standridge doesn’t think a lot of destruction of property rises to. He said that there is currently nothing on the books stating that those that damage the property have to pay for all damages.
“I think we need to encourage your First Amendment rights where people can peacefully protest, but we can’t allow destruction,” Standridge said.
Standridge, who has served in the state senate for eight years, is running for reelection against former Norman City Councilmember Alex Scott.
Scott was arrested in June on a complaint of obstructing police after climbing a flagpole outside the BOK center ahead of President Trump’s rally in Tulsa. This summer, Scott voted to cut the Norman Police budget by $865,000 dollars. Scott has also called for major police reform.
Nicole McAfee, the director of policy and advocacy for the Oklahoma ACLU, said that the state has existing ways for people to be reimbursed for property damage.
“Oklahoma has no shortage of ways to punish people, and we see that in our rate of incarceration,” McAfee said. “We have prosecutors who are using anti-terrorism charges against protesters and especially young black and indigenous protesters and I think that that just speaks to a broader problem.” Standridge’s bill is unnecessary and dangerous, she added.
State Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, said that now is the time to examine existing legislation regarding rioting. Weaver said that when Florida’s governor proposed his bill, there was feedback with a desire to have that type of legislation in Oklahoma. Weaver said that Oklahoma already has some of those elements in law, and that what is on the books needs to be examined.
Weaver, who has 30 years of law enforcement experience, said that it is encouraging for democracy when people protest.
“I believe you have all the right in the world to protest and get your message out,” Weaver said “I think there’s a point and I think that is where it goes from a peaceful protest into something that’s much more aggressive and much more destructive. And, you know, where does that happen?”