In recent weeks, news across the country and even around the world has been consumed with protests in response to a police officer in Minneapolis killing George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, by kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes.
People everywhere were outraged by a video of Floyd's death that was shared online and, seeing his death as the last straw after years of anger, protestors began filling the streets. However, what began as peaceful protests turned into violent riots in many cities, especially Philadelphia. Rioters destroyed private businesses, public buildings, public spaces, and vehicles by smashing glass with rocks and bricks, starting countless fires, and spray painting graffiti, often with no rhyme or reason for the targets they chose.
In Philadelphia, the shopping district west of City Hall extending to the Rittenhouse Square was a particular scene of devastation. Dozens of stores were destroyed by looters who smashed the windows and stole the merchandise and by the fires rioters set and the water firefighters used to extinguish the fires. The damage was tremendous and shocking.
In Pittsburgh, law enforcement officers arrested a young white man named Brian Bartels and charged him in federal district court with obstruction of law enforcement during a civil disorder. Bartels was caught after a co-worker recognized him in a photo circulated online in which he is seen deliberating damaging a police car.
Bartels admitted to an FBI investigator that he planned to engage in riotous activities and that he prepared for the protest by filling his backpack with several cans of spray paint and several rocks. He described himself to the investigator as ‘far left,' and said that he had become fed up with incidents involving police mistreatment of citizens.
Video from the protest shows Bartels throwing rocks at the police SUV, flashing obscene gestures to the protesters who were trying to stop him, reaching into his backpack, taking out a can of red spray paint, and painting the police SUV with it, while other protesters yelled at him to stop.
Bartels, who is 20 years old, may have believed he was embarking on a righteous cause when he loaded his backpack with items he intended to use for destruction of property, but the law does not see it that way. Bartels has been charged with a federal crime—a felony— for which the punishment is up to a $250,000 fine and five years in prison.
If convicted, he could very well serve time in federal prison and then be required to pay off a potentially steep fine for many years following his release. At that point, he'll be a convicted felon and may find it quite difficult to find employment. All to say, his plan to wreak havoc and act on his frustrations will very likely haunt him for the rest of his life, and will almost certainly plague him for the next decade.
The First Amendment protects the rights of Americans to peacefully protest—and that's a wonderful thing. But if a protester crosses the line from peaceful protest into destroying property and endangering others' lives, criminal law and criminal punishments apply.
Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorney
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has been defending clients accused of crimes for many years in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania and he achieves great outcomes often in the face of long odds. Contact attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or online if you or a loved one is facing criminal charges.