AURORA | An Aurora jury on Tuesday acquitted a 38-year-old Lakewood woman who was accused of criminal tampering after she lowered a flag at a protest last summer.
Jurors in Aurora Municipal Court absolved Michelle Mata Aug. 19 of the lone municipal charge stemming from the 2019 protest, according to court records.
Aurora police had accused Mata of tampering with a flag bearing the emblem of GEO Group Inc., the private company that manages a detention center on Oakland Street on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Mata said she lowered the flag to the ground in protest, though the banner was still tethered to the rope used to raise and lower it along the pole.
“I lowered the GEO flag to send a message to GEO/ICE that the conditions in which they are housing people are inhuman,” she said Wednesday.
Jurors determined that did not constitute criminal tampering.
Mata’s defense attorney, Mark Burton, commended jurors’ decision.
“I think this indicated the fact that she was exercising her First Amendment rights and was not acting in a criminal manner,” Burton said. “The jury believed she was trying to send a message about the conditions in the GEO ICE facility and she was justified in speaking up and acting the way she did.”
Mata said she received death threats after she was issued her original court summons and later had to move out of her home.
“I have been dealing with this for one year and one month and I have been harassed and dragged through the mud,” she said.
Local and national officials, including Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler and Aurora City Councilman Dave Gruber, excoriated several protesters suspected of tampering with multiple flags at the large protest outside of the north Aurora immigration detention center held on July 12, 2019.
More than 2,000 people attended the gathering, which was intended to condemn the practices of GEO and ICE.
Local activists celebrated Mata’s actions.
“Michelle – you are an inspiration and a true Chingona,” Abolish ICE Denver wrote on its Facebook page. The organization has consistently organized protests in Aurora against the GEO Group-run ICE facility and broader U.S. immigration policies.
“….Our removal of the US flag, burning of the Colorado flag, and flying of the Mexican and anti police flag was a spontaneous, aesthetically on-point expression of perfectly legitimate rage. Don’t let the rightwing get in your heads. ICE, GEO, and the cops are the bad guys,” the group wrote in its statement.