Arrested MLK Day protesters voice dissent as city pushes for civility

Andy Downing
Mia Santiago of the Columbus Freedom Coalition is dragged out of the MLK Day breakfast by police on Monday.

Two members of the Columbus Freedom Coalition (CFC) were arrested while protesting during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast celebration at the Greater Columbus Convention Center on Monday.

The two, Mia Santiago and Dkéama Alexis, interrupted a speech by Mayor Andrew Ginther, shouting words in support of the late Julius Tate Jr. (“Justice for Julius”; “He deserved to dream”). Both were dragged from the hall by police and later charged with criminal trespassing, gaining release shortly before 7 p.m., according to a post on the Black, Queer & Intersectional Collective (BQIC) Facebook site.

In the immediate aftermath, CFC released a statement criticizing the arrests and reiterating what the organization viewed as a disparity between a genteel MLK Day breakfast and the realities of racial inequity in the city, writing, “Columbus hosting an event to pay homage to MLK Jr.’s legacy is insulting, considering how the city has consistently endangered and deprioritized the lives of Black people, people of color, poor people, and other marginalized peoples.” An emergency fund was also launched to raise the money needed to gain the pair’s release. Moving forward, BQIC has planned a public organizing meeting at the Northside branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, 1423 N. High St., to discuss upcoming actions. The meeting is scheduled for 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26.

Who is Julius Tate Jr.?

Tate, 16, was fatally shot by Columbus police SWAT officer Eric Richards during a 2018 robbery sting. Tate’s girlfriend, Masonique Saunders, then 17, was charged with aggravated robbery for her alleged role in the setup. Saunders was also charged with Tate’s murder under the controversial felony murder rule, even though she was not present when Tate was shot and killed. In May, Saunders reached an agreement with prosecutors, admitting to delinquency charges of aggravated robbery and involuntary manslaughter. She’s currently serving a three-year sentence with a state Department of Youth Services prison. The case remains a flashpoint for the city’s activist community.

What was the city’s response to the MLK Day protesters?

As the pair was being removed, Bishop Timothy Clarke, a pastor with the First Church of God, said on the microphone within the Convention Center that Americans are guaranteed the right to protest, but not the right to be rude — a remark that has been widely criticized on social media. Later in the afternoon, Ginther posted a pair of seemingly contradictory, equally scrutinized tweets addressing the day’s events. The first stated that civil disobedience “has long been a strategy used to amplify the voices of those who feel unheard,” with Ginther going on to defend the right to protest. In a follow-up tweet, which is currently getting ratioed, Ginther wrote that police were asked to remove the protesters, adding that “the conversation should not focus on this single protest, but on the truth that unites us and our shared obligation to close the divide between communities of color and the police.”

On Twitter, author, cultural critic and occasional Alive contributor Hanif Abdurraqib noted that Ginther’s posts minimize the power imbalance between the police and communities of color, as well as the deep, systemic issues in play that overwhelmingly harm minorities. Furthermore, celebrating the essential value of civil disobedience, as Ginther appeared to do in his initial tweet, requires an acceptance that the conversation around the protest can’t be tailored or controlled. The power of civil disobedience lies in upsetting the status quo, which was something Martin Luther King Jr. stressed in a 1967 speech at Stanford University, “The Other America,” in which he described riot as “the language of the unheard.”

“And what is it that America has failed to hear?” King said. “It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.”