FARGO — About 50 protesters chanted outside the Cass County Courthouse Thursday, Aug. 6, in support of Francisco Lopez III, who in court described how he was hit by a vehicle during a May 30 protest in West Fargo, begged the driver to stop and held onto the hood for three blocks as the vehicle hit speeds of 45 mph.
But Michael Charles Griffin, the 47-year-old West Fargo man charged with felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and reckless endangerment in connection to the incident, was not present.
A defense attorney entered not guilty pleas on behalf of Griffin after Judge Tom Olson listened to almost an hour of testimony from West Fargo Police Detective Craig Danielson and Lopez. The hearing, meant to establish probable cause but not guilt, also was attended by a handful of OneFargo and Black Lives Matter supporters, with others demonstrating outside.
“On that day, (Lopez) came to stand with us, so we wanted to come to stand with you,” OneFargo leader Wess Philome said as he stood next to Lopez outside the courthouse after the hearing.
Griffin waived his right to appear in court.
Thousands of protesters marched through Fargo and West Fargo on May 30 in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Those who march have called for police reform and systematic change to end racism in the U.S.
Lopez testified on Thursday he and other protesters were trying to join a larger group as they approached the Main Avenue and 45th Street intersection. Police had blocked off the intersection, but Griffin is seen in drone footage going around an unmarked police car that had its emergency lights on, Danielson said.
While the drone did not catch the moment Griffin's vehicle hit Lopez, there are witnesses, Danielson said. Lopez said Griffin drove the vehicle toward him as he and other protesters told him to turn around and slow down.
“When he was close to me, I thought he would stop,” Lopez said, noting the vehicle did initially slow down.
Lopez said Griffin hit the gas about 3 feet away, knocking him off his feet. Lopez landed on the hood and held on as Griffin drove away.
The protester said he didn’t have time to respond or get out of the way. He also couldn’t say for how long he held on as he begged Griffin to stop, at times pounding on the windshield.
“It seemed like an eternity,” Lopez said.
Lopez said Griffin showed no emotions and didn’t react to his pleas. Instead, Griffin stared blankly at the protester, Lopez said.
Video also shows the vehicle swerving as Lopez hung on, as if to try to shake Lopez off, Danielson said. The detective also said the vehicle appeared to be going between 40 and 45 mph, which would be enough to break bones or even cause death.
Lopez eventually pushed himself off. He said he wasn’t sure how he broke his leg, but he thought the rear tire drove over his leg.
Griffin, who was stopped by police, told officers he was punched and slapped by protesters, and he had no choice but to drive, Danielson testified. The detective noted video doesn’t show anything to substantiate Griffin’s claims that he was assaulted.
Investigators found a rock in the vehicle, and a hole in the glass appears like something was thrown at the vehicle, Danielson said.
Multiple news organizations have reported at least 66 protesters have been struck by vehicles across the nation during marches. Drivers and others have defended those actions, saying they felt their property or lives were in danger.
“For some people, they see protesters as not human,” Lyndis Williams of Moorhead said.
Sierra Kunz, of Bismarck, said she was next to Lopez when he was hit. Many protesters were watching for the white Subaru Forester, the vehicle police said Griffin was driving at the time of the incident, because the SUV was following them and the driver was revving the engine.
“He screamed the n-word at us, and told us to get jobs,” Kunz said of Griffin.
Even if self-defense is used in the case, deadly force can’t be used to protect property, prosecutor Joshua Traiser said.
Lopez still limps as he walks but has mostly healed from the incident.
“I don’t think he’ll get away with it, I’m just nervous in general,” he said before the hearing. “I feel like they’re going to try and defame me, make it seem like I’m not legitimate.”
Philome said before the hearing that Griffin, who faces up to 20 years in prison on the assault charge, needs to feel uncomfortable.
“We’re going to make sure Michael Griffin is held accountable, just as those who were arrested are being held accountable,” Philome said.
In addition to calling for justice to be served on Griffin, protesters called on Gov. Doug Burgum, as well as state and local leaders, to condemn hate and pass hate crime legislation to protect people of color and the LGBT community.
“Even if our politicians won’t speak up, we will speak up against hate,” Philome said.
In a statement to The Forum, Burgum’s spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor doesn’t comment on proposed legislation until it reaches his desk, nor does Burgum speculate on what bills could be introduced.
“As the governor has stated repeatedly, all North Dakotans deserve to be treated equally and live free of discrimination, and he has previously supported anti-discrimination legislation,” Nowatzki said in an email.