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Black Lives Matter protesters who blocked L.A. freeway are 'vessels of change,' lawyer tells jury

Demonstrators accused of blocking the 101 Freeway during a 2014 protest against police abuse were exercising their free-speech rights and used nonviolent action to make their point, a defense attorney told jurors on Thursday.

As the trial of seven Black Lives Matter protesters began in an East Los Angeles courtroom, attorney Caree Harper said the demonstrators wanted to improve the treatment of blacks and other people of color by law enforcement in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and compared their action to that of civil rights icons such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

"You have an unique opportunity to be a witness to these vessels of change," she told jurors, adding: "Change is coming to Los Angeles."

But prosecutor Jennifer Wexler told jurors that no matter the reason for their behavior, the defendants shut down a freeway and snarled traffic for miles, then refused officers' orders to disperse.

"Voice your opinion — but do it legally," Wexler said.

"They did not want to listen to what officers had to say and they did not want to leave," she added.

The defendants — Rosa Clemente, Haewon Asfaw, Povi-Tamu Bryant, Sha Dixon, Todd Harris, Damon Turner and Jas Wade — were among 323 demonstrators who were arrested while protesting the police killing of a young black man in Missouri.

The group is accused of blocking lanes of the northbound 101 freeway near Alvarado Street on the morning of Nov. 26, 2014.

Those on trial are charged with obstructing a thoroughfare and refusing to comply with lawful police orders. Both charges are misdemeanors.

The protests in Los Angeles followed news that a grand jury would not indict a police officer in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Missouri.

That decision set off scores of protests in cities across the country, some marked by violence and looting. Demonstrations in Los Angeles were calmer but police arrested more than 300 people, surpassing arrest figures in cities that experienced more violent disturbances, such as Oakland, St. Louis and Ferguson.

Los Angeles City prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against the vast majority of the people detained by police.

Eventually, 27 protesters — fewer than 9% — were charged.

The charges included obstructing thoroughfares, refusing police orders and assault or battery on officers.

Charges of resisting arrest against Jasmyne Cannick, a political consultant and frequent critic of the Los Angeles Police Department, were later dropped.

Harper, who represents Dixon, told jurors that her client and the others were demonstrating against police "systematically executing people of all colors," and said prosecutors would fail in proving a malicious intent by the group.

"They were chanting 'No justice, no peace, no racist police,'" she said.

Defense attorney Nana Gyamfi, who represents six of the defendants, will give an opening statement after the prosecution concludes its case.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

Twitter: @sjceasar

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