Megaphone assault case dismissed: Cleveland protesters no longer facing felony charges

CLEVELAND, OH — This morning, Judge Timothy McGinty granted the prosecutor’s motion to dismiss felony charges against Sydney Yahner, whose jury trial was set to begin tomorrow in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas after she and a fellow protester were indicted for assaulting a restaurant owner with soundwaves issued from a megaphone at a demonstration staged outside of one of the alleged victim’s business locations.

Photo: Doug Brown

The indictments against Yahner, 22, and Josiah Douglas, 24, who were members of an organization called With Peace We Protest, arose from a series of three demonstrations organized at TownHall and other restaurants owned by Bobby George that took place in the summer of 202o amidst a nationwide protest movement set off by George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. The WPWP protests were intended to address perceived unethical and discriminatory practices by the prominent Cleveland businessman, who had recently filed a (since dismissed) defamation lawsuit against local alt-weekly Cleveland Scene after the paper reported on a TownHall manager having told an immigrant to “go back to the country [he] came from.” The night before the third and last of these protests, which took place on July 12, 2020, George sent a series of threatening messages to Douglas and another WPWP member in an admitted effort to stop the demonstrations. A few days later, George’s cousin and business partner Jacqueline Boyd filed for a civil restraining order against Douglas and Yahner to keep them from coming within 500 feet of any George-owned business. This order was entered based on Boyd’s ex parte claims that the protesters caused her to fear for her safety and caused her hearing loss by using their megaphones within a few feet of her; accusations that were shortly contradicted by voluminous evidence, including police video recorded by the on-duty officers who closely observed these protests and denied Boyd’s repeated requests to intervene, and the testimony of several eyewitnesses who attended the protests.

As Douglas and Yahner challenged the restraining order in the civil proceedings, which were delayed by the court for months due to concerns over Covid-19, George’s attorneys began communicating threats that they were working with a Cleveland police detective behind the scenes to have the protesters indicted by a grand jury.

And in late January of 2021, more than six months after the alleged “assault,” Douglas and Yahner were shocked to learn that the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office had indeed obtained a felony indictment against them, apparently based on nothing more than Boyd’s implausible testimony and the bizarre involvement of Cleveland police detective Thomas R. Barnes. In his written report, dated September 21, 2020, more than two months after the alleged assault, Barnes describes Douglas and Yahner as “ANTIFA/BLM” protesters, claims to have observed the July 12 protest undercover pursuant to an assignment from the Cleveland police department’s “Intelligence unit,” and relies extensively on police video, dubiously marked as “attorneys’ eyes only,” that conclusively demonstrates that no crime occurred. Notably absent from Barnes’s report is any explanation of why, having witnessed the alleged assault, neither he nor any of the other officers on duty did anything to intervene or otherwise document their concerns until months after the fact.

In early February, after the indictments received national press coverage, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office agreed to drop the charges against Douglas. But Yahner, currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in anthropology at Cleveland State University, had been facing the felony prosecution and a sentence of up to 8 years in prison if convicted, until this morning. The prosecutor filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Yahner on October 28, stating that its request was based on unspecified “information gathered during the pendency of this matter.”

“Needless to say we’re glad that the charges against Sydney have been dismissed but it is beyond outrageous that she and Josiah were ever indicted in the first place,” said attorney Peter Pattakos, who led the defense for Yahner and Douglas along with attorney Chris Thomarios. “Every decent citizen of this state should be terrified by the fact that their government would charge protesters for committing felony assault with the soundwaves issued from megaphones, based on nothing but facially ridiculous and easily disprovable lies by politically influential multi-millionaires who admitted that they didn’t like the speech that was coming through those megaphones and would do whatever was within their power to muzzle it. It’s easy and chilling enough to look at the campaign-finance reports and see that the George family has hosted fundraisers for Mike O’Malley and donated thousands of dollars to get him elected as Cuyahoga County Prosecutor. But we’re also talking about a family who gave $120,000 to congressman Larry Householder, who is notoriously under indictment for taking $60 million in bribes from First Energy, a corporation that not only has received substantial direct support from the Georges but has reportedly awarded the George family’s businesses more than $10 million in contracts. It doesn’t matter whether there’s any specific connection between these contributions and O’Malley’s decision to prosecute these protesters at the George family’s request. The message sent by a prosecution like this is clear and devastating to the notion that we live in a functioning democracy. And when the evidence that the state wrongly marked as ‘attorneys’ eyes only’ in this case becomes public, that unfortunate message will become even clearer. This isn’t about red versus blue or right versus left. This is about what happens to speech and government when we make it legal to buy elections. We don’t often see abuses that are this sloppy and egregious, so we can at least take hope in the possibility that this case helps wake people up to the increasing dangers of living in a state and nation where wealthy donors are allowed to have increasingly unlimited and unaccountable influence on our political processes. The Yahner and Douglas families will certainly never look at a courthouse in the same way after this, and hope that everyone who has ever disagreed with anything their government has done will imagine that it was one of their children in Sydney’s or Josiah’s shoes.”

“There are so many people trapped in the criminal justice system because they didn’t have the support and resources that I’ve had,” said Yahner. “Without the fearless and generous efforts of my attorneys and the outpouring of support I received from my family and community, I could have easily been scared into taking a plea for a crime I didn’t commit. I will forever stand in solidarity with those who have been falsely charged of crimes and will work to advocate against the blatant abuse and misuse of public resources represented by my prosecution.”