It is hard to understand the magnitude of the restitution fine imposed on Urbana resident Shamar Betts as anything other than the persecution of one young black man. Despite a recent stay on collection of the debt pending a response from the federal Appeals Court for the Seventh Circuit, Betts is still a hostage of the state. How is it that a 19-year-old with no previous record was saddled with a seven-figure fine for damage caused in the Market Place Mall riot that followed George Floyd’s murder, when the January 6 rioters have been handed restitution fines of between $500 and $5000?
Apparently, the judges imposing the fines averaging $2000 on January 6 actors thought that amount was a sufficient life lesson. The scale of the fine imposed on Betts, along with the lack of clarity regarding the claims, continues to make this one of the most important cases in Champaign County history.
“The Government Has Decided to Ruin his Life”
In a recent interview Betts described how, despite having seen photos of the police officer kneeling on Floyd, he had not watched the full video until the morning of his post. The previous day he had marched to the Urbana courthouse with others but left feeling that both he and the entire community were disrespectful in avoiding the horror of Floyd’s murder. He forced himself to finally watch the nine long minutes of casual and deadly police violence. Devastated, he sent out an emotional call for stronger action on his Facebook page. His usual posts on life and friends never garnered much response before, but this moment was different. Betts, the local community, and the Champaign and Urbana police departments watched as the post went viral.
What followed at the mall was not unique to Champaign. Across the country protests erupted at the slow response to Floyd’s murder. The Minneapolis police fed the anger by initially stating that Floyd died following a “medical incident.” President Trump played a role by remaining silent on police violence while delegitimizing protesters as “thugs” in a tweet. And it was only after a week of national protests that the Minneapolis Police Department officially changed its policy on physical restraint.
In some ways local authorities in C-U acknowledged the exceptional climate of outrage. Local police, despite their riot gear and military-style transport, refrained from physically confronting the crowd, as opposed to other cities which used fire hoses, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Those who participated in property damage and theft were identified, charged, bailed out by local activists, and handed suspended sentences with the possibility of those records being erased in five years.
In contrast, the federal government pursued Betts as if he alone had authored the anger. Charged with inciting a riot, he was arrested, denied bail, and confined during the height of the COVID crisis for a year before trial. He was sentenced to an additional 36 months in Federal prison and made responsible for the entire two-million-dollar price tag for damage that night. At the 2022 appeal hearing one judge summed up her understanding of the case: “This is a 19-year-old kid who was outraged (as very many people in the country were) by the murder of George Floyd, who ranted. But what the government has decided to do is ruin his life.”
“Confidential Corporate Matters”
Betts’s defense team challenged some of the claims for restitution (for businesses distant from the mall), and got the fine reduced from $2.2 to $1.68 million, but questions remain. Claims range wildly: Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example, filed a claim for $2678.75. Macy’s’ ($417,865) and JC Penney’s ($159,642) claims were significantly higher. Is Betts being asked to repay Macy’s for damages that have already been covered by its insurance? Do the lower figures represent losses not covered by insurance? Were some claims rejected by insurance, and why?
I visited some of the affected stores to see if I could learn more about the calculations. Not surprisingly, I was repeatedly told that this was handled by “corporate,” and local staff had little knowledge of the process. Contacting “corporate” seems about as mysterious as communing with aliens, but Betts and the public deserve to understand these claims and how restitution fines will be allocated.
For some mall staff painful memories remain. Several described shock at broken security gates, smashed display cases, and goods strewn across floors. In the wake of the riots some received layoff notices, although one manager reflected that there were signs of COVID-prompted “reorganization” underway well before May 31. In her mind, as perhaps in others’, anger over the financial stresses of 2020 focused on Betts. Restitution, however, will benefit only the corporations, not these workers.
Surprisingly, few I talked with knew that Betts alone was being asked to pay for the damage. “Oh, wow,” said one manager who had been on-site in 2020. Another looked at the disparities in claims and said, “that certainly is curious.”
I saved my visit to the mall business office for last, hoping to learn how the modest claim of $2958.54 had been arrived at. I was politely informed that these were “confidential corporate matters,” and that if I wanted to be on their private property, I should have requested permission in advance. The cone of silence had descended.
Restitution or Retribution?
As of September 25, restitution payments, which would be “50 percent of disposable income until the amount is paid in full,” are on hold pending a response from the appeals court. In requesting the hold, Betts’s attorney Thomas Drysdale argued that neither the “victims” (the businesses) nor the public would be harmed by a hold, whereas Betts’s efforts to reestablish himself were being definitively harmed by payments on a restitution which might be vacated following the appeals decision.
The government’s unsuccessful opposition to the request centered on portraying Betts as if he were benefiting from the events of the last three years. It incorrectly implied that Betts had not informed the court of a fundraising account (Drysdale demonstrated that he in fact had) and tried to create the impression that Betts controlled the page and the funds, which he does not—they have been dispersed only to address family and incarceration emergencies thus far. Also, the portrait ignored the harm the government’s decision to “ruin his life” has already caused him. He lost his apartment, his car, his furniture, and his personal possessions in 2020 when he was denied bail. Betts recently began a $16-an-hour job and is living with friends while building up savings. He is enrolling in college this coming January, but the three-year delay in his education (there were no educational opportunities while he was incarcerated due to constant COVID shutdowns) will delay his professional employment and result in a lifetime wage and wealth penalty. In short, Betts has already paid a steep price for the events of May, 2020.
For the moment, payments on the $1.68 million restitution fine are on hold pending the response of the appeals court. In the meantime, Betts follows the stories on the January 6 trials and the commonly imposed fines of no more than a few thousand dollars and wonders which America he lives in.
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