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American Indian leader who led protest to topple Columbus statue gets community service

This came following a restorative justice process that explored the underlying reasons and impact of the statue's illegal removal.

The only person who was charged after a group pulled down the Christopher Columbus statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol in June will avoid going to trial after agreeing to a deal with prosecutors.

Michael Forcia, 57, of New Brighton, was charged in August with one count of felony criminal damage to property following what was described as an extensive investigation into the June 10 incident that involved people scaling the statue and pulling it down with a rope.

But now that felony charge will be suspended so long as he completes 100 hours of community service, according to the pretrial suspended prosecution agreement that was filed Monday in Ramsey County District Court. 

Forcia must also write a letter acknowledging the damage he caused and remain law-abiding while he's on probation for the next year, the agreement says. Once he does all of that, the charge will be removed from his record. 

During a Zoom hearing Monday morning, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Sarah Cory said, "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," according to the Star Tribune

Restorative justice

Instead of going to trial, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office sought a restorative punishment for Forcia, noting he doesn't have prior convictions and didn't deny his involvement in the crime.

This provided a more transparent judicial process than if they'd gone to trial, allowing the underlying reasons for and the impact of the removal of the statue to be explored, court documents note. 

“Employing restorative principles in a way that allows all voices and perspectives to be respectfully heard provides a greater opportunity to achieve true justice for our community, to respond more meaningfully and in due time, rather than waiting more than a year for an adversarial trial that would not provide adequate closure for our community and likely create additional division,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in a 10-page report on the restorative justice process in this case.

“The pursuit of justice should always seek to unite a community rather than divide it," he added.

Through this process, groups of people representing different community perspectives met three times this fall to discuss the toppling of the statue, the report said. The consensus was unanimous in that the response should not involve a conviction or a jail/prison sentence.

Cory, according to the Star Tribune, said they all agreed it "would be detrimental" if Forcia was sentenced to be put behind bars. 

In the agreement, the prosecutor acknowledged the violence and forced assimilation that's been forced on Native Americans and the trauma that remains, adding that legal processes are reflective of the perspectives of the dominant culture.

"There was context for this unlawful act that was committed out of civil disobedience that we should seek to understand and reckon with in determining the legal system’s response to this act," the agreement said. 

Forcia, an organizer with the American Indian movement and a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, acknowledged in the agreement that he broke the law and was prepared to accept the consequences and the unintended effects his actions may have had, including Italian Americans who felt his actions were an attack on their community and the Native American community who disagreed with his decision. 

His 100 hours of community service will include providing education and participating in other restorative practices to further repair the harms and healing that were identified in the community meetings this fall. 

Forcia had called the statue a "symbol of genocide," and while its removal was not mourned by members of the Native American community in Minnesota, among them Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, members of the Republican Party called for consequences for those involved in the statue's removal, which came at a time of civil unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Statue's future is uncertain

The cost to repair and replace the statue is $154,553, but it hasn't yet been determined if that will happen. 

The Capital Area Architectural Board (CAAPB) is responsible for the art and statues on the Capitol's grounds and it hasn't decided if the statue will be repaired and returned to its location, court paperwork said. The CAAPB has started a commission to review art at the Capitol, including the Columbus statue. If the statue isn't returned to its location on the grounds, the Minnesota Historical Society will take possession of it and determine its future. 

Meanwhile, the investigation into the statue's removal revealed the CAAPB doesn't have a clear, official process for removing a statue or other art at the Capitol. It is now developing a process where people can make requests regarding the removal of Capitol art. 

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