When protesters get arrested in Minneapolis, they often call a 50-year-old attorney who’s made a habit of winning sizable settlements and getting under the skin of prosecutors.
Jordan Kushner has defended antiwar demonstrators, Black Lives Matter activists and people dressed as zombies.
Now he’s representing himself, along with a co-counsel, after he was arrested at a University of Minnesota protest. Kushner, who has clashed frequently with the city attorney’s office, maintains he’s innocent and is being politically targeted — something the city attorney’s office denies.
“He is being treated the same as any other similarly situated individual,” Mary Ellen Heng, deputy city attorney for the criminal division, said in an e-mail this week.
The testy legal clash was evident at a recent court hearing. Seven prosecutors from the city attorney’s office turned up, including Heng, who consulted with the assistant city attorney handling the case, Sarah Becker, during the proceedings. The others apparently were there just to watch.
Kushner’s allies marshaled their own contingent, filling all 28 seats in the small Hennepin County courtroom. Sheriff’s deputies told about 20 other Kushner supporters they’d have to wait in the corridor because District Judge Marta Chou did not want people standing in the aisles.
Dispute over facts
Kushner is accused in University of Minnesota police reports of obstructing an officer during a disruption by protesters. The demonstrators were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and were trying to shout down a pro-Israeli speaker, Moshe Halbertal, at the university law school Nov. 3.
He’s also been charged with not leaving when he was told to do so. The U police issued a trespass notice barring him from the university’s West Bank buildings for a year.
Police removed eight protesters during the disruption and arrested three, including Kushner.
A police report alleges Kushner was “shouting and arguing” with an officer who wanted him to stop video-recording the lecture and then refused to leave when he was accused of disrupting the event. As officers escorted Kushner from the hall, he “struggled with us the whole time,” the report says.
Kushner denies the charges.
He notes he received a formal invitation from the law school to attend the lecture. Before the event, he e-mailed a demonstration organizer, saying he supported the protest but did not think they should prevent Halbertal from speaking because it “forecloses dialogue with people attending the event” and alienates allies.
Kushner said he attended as an informal legal observer, taking video only of protesters’ interaction with police, when police asked a woman near him to leave. Kushner said he told an officer she had done nothing wrong, although afterward, she joined the disruption.
He said he never yelled at officers, and two of his witnesses confirmed his account.
On the video, Kushner is heard speaking, but not yelling. The entire sequence is not recorded because, Kushner said, he stopped recording when asked by police to do so.
Kushner has a history of clashing with prosecutors and has won multiple settlements over allegations of improper arrests during protests. He also signed a National Lawyers Guild letter and spoke at a City Council hearing, objecting to the reappointment of City Attorney Susan Segal.
Before the recent hearing, he had a tense argument with Becker, who is prosecuting him.
The acrimony spilled into the courtroom.
Kushner wanted to represent himself, along with a co-counsel, Stephen Grigsby. But Becker urged Chou to prohibit it if he had co-counsel, saying he’d offer up evidence without being on the witness stand.
“We are bound by the rules,” Grigsby responded. “He knows you cannot do that.”
Chou decided to let Kushner stay on as co-counsel.
Then Becker said she did not want to talk with Kushner, citing earlier disputes she had with Kushner over his arrest. “I am only going to work with Mr. Grigsby,” she said.
Kushner responded that Grigsby would do most of the conversing but added that Becker could not decide who was allowed to talk to her. Chou said she would see how things went before interceding.
Becker also criticized Kushner for speaking to a City Pages reporter about the case and asked for a gag order to prevent him from talking to the media. It also would gag prosecutors. Chou declined to issue the order but said Becker was free to file a written motion.
Heng said in an e-mail that the city offered to dismiss charges after a year against the three people arrested if they did community service. One protester accepted the offer and the other pleaded guilty, agreeing to community service in lieu of a fine. Kushner denied he was a disrupter and rejected the offer.
“It is frustrating and disturbing that I have to spend this time on this bogus case when I have clients’ cases to be taken care of,” Kushner said.
No trial date has been set.