Ramsey County prosecutors on Monday offered to suspend the felony charge of an American Indian Movement (AIM) leader accused of toppling a Christopher Columbus statue outside the State Capitol this summer in exchange for 100 hours of community service.
Michael A. Forcia, 57, must write a letter acknowledging the damage he caused and remain law-abiding while on probation for the next year, according to the plea agreement. Once completed, the charge will be wiped from his record.
"We cannot ignore that the act in this case was an act of civil disobedience — and a response that follows with simply punishment would not further the goals of uniting community or achieving justice in these circumstances," Assistant County Attorney Sarah Cory said during a 45-minute Zoom hearing Monday morning.
After convening three separate meetings with Indigenous communities, faith leaders and law enforcement this fall, prosecutors opted not to push for a sentence involving jail or prison time. "The consensus was that … it would be detrimental," said Cory, who noted that Forcia has no criminal history.
Forcia, of New Brighton, was charged with felony destruction of property via summons in August — two months after he led a group of protesters in pulling down the nearly 90-year-old statue with a rope, within full view of State Patrol officers. At the time, Forcia told onlookers that he was willing to risk criminal charges for tearing it down.
"I'll accept it fully, whatever it is, 100%," he later told the Star Tribune. "Whatever has happened to me is of little consequence compared to the conversation the state needs to have about this."
Authorities estimated the cost of repairing the monument and surrounding property at about $155,000. But it's unclear whether it will ever be restored. Gov. Tim Walz decided early on not to return the 10-foot bronze statue to its spot on the Capitol grounds.
The Columbus statue, erected in 1931, was commissioned and paid for by a group called Italian Americans of Minnesota at a time when Italian Americans faced widespread discrimination. Columbus was then seen as a symbol of the Italian people's contributions to the country.
But the 15th-century Genoese explorer has long been a target of activists for his role in colonizing, killing and exploiting Indigenous people. Columbus' was the first of many statues on public grounds felled by protesters in the nationwide reckoning over institutional racism that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Forcia's attorney, Jack Rice, each called for a transparent judicial process giving voice to divergent opinions in a case that generated widespread interest across the state. The listening sessions allowed both sides to articulate what that statue meant to them, an experience that would have been lost had the case gone to trial.
"This will be a transformative process for justice," Rice said.
Forcia, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, acknowledged the unintended impact of his actions, including how Columbus' removal caused harm to Italian Americans who saw it as an "attack on their community," and some fellow Native Americans who did not approve of his decision.
"The rule of law is an essential element to a peaceful society. I broke the law and was prepared to accept the consequences when I did that," Forcia said in written statement to the court. "It created a rift in a community I deeply love which I regret and will continue to work to make amends."
Chief Judge Leonardo Castro lauded both parties for their work to find an "innovative and creative" resolution.
"It is a step toward healing," he said. "If we don't like the law, we fight to change it."
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648