Scott County, MN – “Whenever Lee shows up, I feel so much safer,” says Toshira Garraway, the founder of Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, which closely works alongside those most impacted by police murders. In 2009, Garraway’s fiancé, Justin Teigen, was found dead after an encounter with Saint Paul Police. Garraway previously told Unicorn Riot he was beaten to death, covered in dog bites, and his body thrown in the dumpster. As the momentum around reopening cases involving police violence and the pressure to charge police with murder intensifies, so does the need for protection.
“Lee picks up every time I need armed protection because we’re out here getting death threats. Over the years, he has shown up to hundreds of events protecting Impacted Families,” said Garraway.
Since the police killing of George Perry Floyd and the uprising and movement that followed, armed security for protesters seeking police accountability has been more of a need. Lee Coleman, standing tall with a mask and chain with a badge on it, has been widely seen in the movement space since then. The local community sees him as a constant force providing safety.
Coleman contracts with several police accountability movement organizers in the city and is currently defending himself against the Savage Police Department in Scott County, Minnesota. He was charged with a gross misdemeanor for carrying a firearm on school property, a charge that doesn’t normally apply to federally licensed private security officers when contracted to work. If found guilty, Coleman would face up to three years in jail, a fine of $10,000, and he would lose his ability to carry, forcing him out of his 30-year career in protective services.
As a Certified Private Protection Officer, Coleman operates through Street Veterans Urban Protection Agency, an organization he co-founded with Ricky Wafford during the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd. Coleman has dedicated decades to protecting his community and standing up to the systems, with the last two years focused primarily on protecting activists and organizers. In particular, he’s had a focus on impacted families of police violence and other leaders in organizations fighting for system change like Visual Black Justice and Black Lives Matter Minnesota.
Coleman told Unicorn Riot he’s even protected “Shaq, Kevin Garnett, Randy Moss, Woody Harrelson, Steve Guttenberg, plus folks at the US Bank Stadium, [and] the Delta 360 Lounge.”
“When George Floyd was murdered, I was out on the streets almost every day for two years, protecting that space with my bare hands and my chest, without even getting paid most of the time, and I’ll keep doing it because that’s just what I do. And when the city was on fire, I was out there with my AR-15 risking my life against white supremacists and others who wanted to commit acts of violence against our community.”Lee Coleman, Street Veterans Urban Protection Agency Security
And November 11, 2021—the day Coleman’s firearm was seized—was no different.
That day, there was an emergency protest at Prior Lake High School in Savage following a viral video targeting Nya Sigin, a 14-year-old student who was called the N-word six times, as well as other racist epithets, and told to kill herself. The 58-second video showed one white girl laughing with another voice in the background, both repeating things like, “No one likes [N-word]… you can fucking rot in hell…no one likes [N-word]… fucking kill yourself right this time.” The video continued on to describe various forms of suicide.
Prior Lake High School is also the same school district that was exposed for racist cyber harassment and cultural appropriation in 2016.
When Garraway found out about the press conference in Prior Lake, where hundreds of people gathered to speak and chant “Nya is beautiful,” she decided to call Coleman for added protection. “This is obviously a school with a lot of white supremacy and I wanted everyone to feel safe, especially the students, and Lee makes us all feel safer,” Garraway said. “He’s my right hand and I like providing extra public safety when we gather.”
Coleman told Unicorn Riot that he was unaware he was going to a school when Garraway called him. When he arrived at the address given and saw he was on school grounds, he knew not to enter the building armed. As long as he was protecting his community outside of school hours when classes were not in session, he felt confident that he could legally do his job.
Upon arriving at the organized action, Coleman let both Garraway and the founder of Visual Black Justice, Athena Papagiannopoulos, know he had arrived. This timeline Coleman told us is consistent with his contract with both community leaders. The school building was locked and secured in preparation for the action. Students, community members, and several Savage police were already outside when Coleman arrived.
After checking in, Coleman was asked by Michael Smith, an activist and organizer with Black Lives Matter, to check out a group huddled by the entry of the school.
The group of nearly a dozen youth and adults were getting ready to engage in property destruction by the pillars in the front of the school when Coleman disrupted. He recalled saying things like, “There are better ways to make an impact,” “You are better than that” and “We aren’t here for that.” Once the situation was de-escalated, he escorted them back to the press conference and into the parking lot with the rest of the crowd.
As Coleman was walking back toward the crowd, he was approached by at least five officers, including some coming from behind him, with the sergeant in the front. Coleman said they told him that he needed to move toward the sergeant’s car, which he did.
“They brought me over to their squad car, telling me they had to take my gun and I said show me the statue because I know my 9-mm SIG Sauer is not subject to forfeiture. One cop said, ‘All right, I’ll pull it up.’ And they left, and then when they came back they asked, ‘Are you gonna give me the gun or not?’ And I said, ‘Show me the statute that allows you to take it,’ and they refused to provide it.”Lee Coleman
“At first the police seemed okay that Lee was there,” said Jae Yates, organizer with Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar and Civilian Police Accountability Commission for Community Control of the Police. “Lee’s at many actions with us and he had been there for an hour, visibly armed with his handgun and they didn’t seem concerned because Lee was de-escalating situations. Then it’s like it hit them that Lee was a black man with a gun defending families against racial violence.”
Coleman shared with Unicorn Riot that most police in the Twin Cities know who he is, and they know he’s “not trying to be a cop.”
“I’m there to help. I stopped two fires in Uptown when Winston Smith was killed and made sure white supremacists saw my presence as the community gathered with his brother Kidale; I was in Brooklyn Center standing with Katie, Daunte’s mom, and I kept people safe night after night. I’ve been out there with every major action, including the nights with the MN National Guard and the State Troopers. I was in the Square almost every night for over a year.Lee Coleman
Several news media sources, including King Demetrius, known to the community as Black CNN, and Louie Tran, caught footage of the incident. In it, Coleman is threatened to be arrested if he didn’t surrender his gun and permit to carry immediately.
When Coleman asked for the statute violation paper showing that he wasn’t doing anything illegal, he was told that he would be charged onsite if he requested the statute from any other officer. Confused about why that would be the case, Coleman asked to speak to a supervisor. When they said no one was higher than them, Coleman said he was planning to call Savage Police Chief Rodney Seurer. The officers surrounding him threatened to arrest him if he did that.
“They denied so many of my rights and lied several times, including understanding my job responsibilities and my right to not have my weapon seized.”Lee Coleman
Coleman explained to Unicorn Riot that his registered firearm cannot be seized as per MN statute 152.01 section 609.531: “A firearm carried in violation of this paragraph is not subject to forfeiture.” Federally licensed to conceal and carry, Coleman’s card allows him to carry professionally. It allows him to purchase just about any weapon.
He explained: “If you’re just a regular person, it’s a felony to have a gun on school property, but it’s legal because I’m protecting someone by work contract, and if an establishment or a school has a code that you can’t be armed, then you’d be told and have a chance to take the weapon off the grounds, which I offered to do and they denied me that right to.”
When Coleman told police that he would put his firearm in the car, they denied his request and demanded to confiscate it.
“I know my rights and I didn’t want to give in, but then I heard Mel Reeves in my heart and he said, ‘You gotta keep going, no one is doing what you are’. Mel said, ‘you gotta comply, or they will hurt you.'”Lee Coleman
King Demetrius can be heard from the live stream saying, “Wow you’re really going to do all this on Veteran’s Day.” Lee Coleman comes from a military family. He was raised by his uncles, one of whom was an Army Ranger and the other was with NASA.
“I’ve been wearing fatigues since I was seven. My grandma made them. They taught me everything I know and I always knew that protecting people was going to be what I did for a living.”Lee Coleman
Coleman was given a property receipt of his firearm, but when he tried to get his property back, including his federal permit to carry so he could continue working, he was told that he couldn’t due to a charge of a misdemeanor and $1,000 fine, which has now been elevated to a gross misdemeanor and a $10,000 fine.
“Someone in my position at the school might be asked to put their gun in the car,” said Coleman. “At worst they would get a fine, but they wouldn’t be facing three years in jail.”
Coleman still has his legal right to carry, but is nervous about working in the same capacity. “This has messed with my whole self esteem,” he shared. “I’m just trying to do the right thing and do something that not everyone will do. Not everyone will jump in front of a bullet or use your body to get in harm’s way. This is what I do, this is my career, this is my job and this is what I’ve been doing for 30 years—protecting people,” he said.
The active seizure of his federal permit has affected Coleman’s work. He’s currently raising money for his legal defense and to help continue his work protecting impacted families of police violence.
“We know this is a case of retaliation,” said Toshira Garraway. “I was on the phone with Lee when he called the chief of police and Lee said he wanted to file a formal complaint for the treatment of him. It’s on camera. They threatened to run him over when he was asking questions and they confiscated his ability to work. And because Lee wanted to file a grievance against those officers, he now faces three years in prison.”
“Of course they are trying to disarm the movement and undermine our sense of safety,” said Jae Yates, “which is why we are fighting for the Civilian Police Accountability Commission (CPAC). It would allow us the ability to file grievances against any officer. Those grievances would then be investigated in transparency with the community with the democratically-elected commission. Under a CPAC system, Lee would be able to file a grievance without retaliation and the officer who threatened to run him over would have real consequences,” Yates explained.
The community is still asking for the release of the police body camera and squad car footage, especially from the sergeant when he threatened to run Coleman over.
The pre-trial date is scheduled for Dec. 12 at 1:00 p.m. at the Scott County Courthouse located at 200 4th Ave W, Shakopee, MN 55379. Lee Coleman is asking the community to show up.
[Dec. 13 – Update after Coleman’s court hearing: The authorities chose to not release Coleman’s license or firearm, opting to hold them as “evidence,” and Coleman has another court date set for March.]