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Charges Dismissed Against Activist In North Versailles Confrontation With Police

Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Melanie Carter celebrates the dismissal of criminal charges against her in the Allegheny County Courthouse courtyard.

Criminal charges were dismissed Thursday against a Wilkinsburg woman whose confrontation with a North Versailles police officer went viral.

Melanie Carter, who is African American, was arrested last February by Officer Christopher Kelly, who is white. Carter’s video of a portion of the incident leading to her arrest has been viewed more than 2 million times on Facebook, and she faced charges of disorderly conduct, defiant trespass and resisting arrest.

But Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge David Cashman granted a pre-trial motion to dismiss all three misdemeanor charges.

Carter is an activist and rapper whose stage name is Blak Rapp Madusa.  The case received considerably more attention than most misdemeanor charges, not least because Carter chose to fight them. Her supporters said the case reflected racial bias.

In May, at the preliminary hearing, a magistrate threw out two of the original charges against Carter while holding three others for trial. In July, the ACLU and the Alliance for Police Accountability were among 15 civic groups who wrote to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala demanding that the charges be dropped.

On Thursday, about 50 of Carter’s supporters – more than could fit in Cashman’s courtroom – joined her at the Allegheny County Courthouse. Prosecutors argued that Carter had engaged in disorderly conduct by swearing at Kelly; had refused his order to leave the premises; and had resisted arrest. (They said that while Kelly was attempting to handcuff Carter, he injured his finger badly enough to require surgery.)

But Carter’s attorney, Brett Grote, of the Abolitionist Law Center, successfully argued there was insufficient evidence to take the charges to trial. In dismissing the charges, Cashman called the confrontation between Carter and Kelly, which began inside the Phoenix Theatres North Versailles Stadium 18, “an unfortunate incident,” but offered no further comment.

Afterward Carter and her supporters gathered in the landmark building’s courtyard to celebrate. She identified her court victory as part of a larger struggle for racial justice.

“Y’all showed up in solidarity, y’all packed that courthouse, y’all let ’em know that we’re not gonna back down, and we’re not gonna be silent about our pain. We did that today! We did that!” she said, to cheers.

Carter describes herself as an “artivist” whose daily life, art and social activism are all of a piece. Indeed, speaking of the February incident – which began when she verbally objected to Officer Kelly ejecting some African-American teenagers from the theater – she has said, “It was my duty to take my phone out and start recording.”

Speaking Thursday, she said, “We won today, and that means a lot for Allegheny County, that means a lot for Pennsylvania, and it means a lot for black women and girls in this community.”

Supporters cited protests on Carter’s behalf as one reason the charges were dismissed.

“This happened because of all of you,” said Miracle Jones, spokesperson for the Abolitionist Law Center, addressing Carter’s supporters. “Because all of you put pressure, you called, you showed up, a couple people drove all the way from Philly overnight to be here. This is something we need to do every single day.”

“This was obviously about protecting black women, and what happens when you protect women of color,” said activist Nicky Jo Dawson.

In February, Carter and a friend had driven to the North Versailles movie theater to pick up the friend’s children. Inside the building, they saw Kelly ejecting some African-American teenagers from the space, which doubles as an arcade.

Carter verbally criticized Kelly, who ordered her to leave. She did so, but the confrontation continued outside. A 90-second video captured by Carter on her cell phone went viral. It included a theater manager saying that the girls were “behaving like animals” and Kelly’s ordering Carter to leave. Kelly then approached Carter; the video seems to reflect a physical struggle, during which Kelly took Carter to the ground and handcuffed her. (The theater manager was later fired.)

One moment in the video seemed especially to interest Cashman: Kelly, having followed Carter out of the theater after ejecting her, produces a cigarette and approaches her to ask for a light.

“Don’t you find it unusual that you would remove somebody and then go up and ask them for a light for your cigarette?” Cashman asked prosecutors.

Carter acknowledged that she was surprised by Cashman’s dismissal of the charges. “I expected him not to care, and he did,” she said. “And he served justice today, and so I’m honored and privileged to be one of the ones who won. We don’t often win these cases.”