Monday, June 06, 2016

What Activist Jasmine Richards's "Lynching" Conviction Means for the Black Lives Matter Movement
by Victoria M. Massie
June 6, 2016, 9:50 a.m. ET

Jasmine Richards, a Black Lives Matter Activist, is the first African American convicted of felony "lynching" in American history.

A court ruling in Pasadena, California, last week just set an unsettling precedent in the movement for black lives' fight against police brutality.

Activist Jasmine Richards, a 28-year-old black woman and founder of Pasadena's Black Lives Matter chapter, was convicted of felony lynching, a technical term in California penal code referring to "the taking by means of a riot of another person from the lawful custody of a peace officer." Her sentencing is June 7.

On August 29, 2015, police responded to a 911 call after an altercation at a local park. The owner of a restaurant near the park told police an unidentified young black woman allegedly did not pay for her meal. Black Lives Matter supporters, including Richards, were already at the park after a peaceful protest earlier that day for Kendrec McDade, a 19-year-old unarmed black teenager who was killed by Pasadena police in 2012.

Video of the incident shows Black Lives Matter supporters, including Richards, run to the woman's side as police attempt to arrest her. Richards was arrested two days later for trying to physically pull the woman away from police.

Richards was initially charged with inciting a riot, child endangerment, delaying and obstructing peace officers, and felony lynching. When the court announced the June 1 trial date, only the lynching charge remained.

Richards is not the first modern protester to be charged with lynching. Maile Hampton, a 20-year-old black woman, was arrested for "lynching" during a rally against police brutality in Sacramento in April 2015. Occupy Oakland activists Tiffany Tran and Alex Brown were charged in 2011, and Los Angeles Occupy activist Sergio Ballesteros was charged in 2012 for lynching while intervening in an arrest at the local Artwalk.

But in other cases, the charges were later dropped. Richards is the first African American convicted of "lynching" in the United States.

"Clearly this is a political prosecution," Richards's attorney, Nana Gyamfi, told Vox. "Its intention is to stop people from organizing, and from speaking out and challenging the system. There's a political message that's been sent by both the prosecutor and the police and, by conviction, the jury."

The history behind California's "lynching" law

Lynching typically refers to a violent Jim Crow–era tactic used to terrorize black communities. However, the language of California's penal code does not speak to this history of racial violence specifically. It's one of the reasons Gov. Jerry Brown removed the term from the state's criminal code in July 2015 following Hampton's arrest.

California's anti-lynching law was enacted in 1933. That year, a vigilante mob of 10,000 people stormed a San Jose jail to seize Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes, two white men, who confessed to kidnapping and murdering of 22-year-old Brooke Hart, the son of a local storeowner. Tear gas did not stop the mob, and police guards were attacked.

After plucking them from the jail, the mob hanged Thurmond and Holmes from trees in a nearby park. According to a 1933 report, Thurmond was "yanked to his doom in less time than it takes to tell it."

No one was charged for Thurmond and Holmes's deaths. Gov. James Rolph Jr. was nationally criticized for condoning the vigilante violence. Still, Rolph signed an anti-lynching law, which was one of several passed by state lawmakers during that time.

The law was passed at a time when people were pressuring the federal government to intervene to stop vigilante lynchings of African Americans. In July 1922, the NAACP lobbied for a federal anti-lynching bill that was ultimately filibustered by the Senate. This would continue throughout the 1920s and '30s. The last thorough national anti-lynching bill was introduced in 1937, and was similarly squashed. In fact, the Senate record was so bad that it approved a resolution in 2005 apologizing for its willful failure to act.

In the 1930s, California's anti-lynching law was a sign of progress at a moment when the federal governmental failed to intervene.

Today, when activists like Richards are charged with "lynching," this progressive law appears to be exploited to quell, not encourage, social change as it was originally intended.

There is a growing legal push to intimidate Black Lives Matter activists

People involved with the Black Lives Matter movement have continually faced forms of intimidation that are eerily reminiscent of those used against civil rights activists from Martin Luther King Jr. to author James Baldwin.

Last summer, a cybersecurity firm identified activists Deray McKesson and Johnetta Elzie as "threat actors" during the Baltimore protests. In August, Vice reported that the Department of Homeland Security was monitoring McKesson's activities on social media.

But Richards's conviction sets a troubling legal precedent.

In the 1971 case People v. Jones, the definition of lynching was expanded to include a riot of two or more people that leads to their own escape, which has been exploited to intimidate activists who resist their (potentially unlawful) arrests. An Occupy Oakland activist was almost charged with lynching herself for yelling "help" during an encampment raid. But, again, unlike in Richards's case, the charges were later dropped.

Black Lives Matter organizer Melina Abdullah told Democracy Now, "It's really disgusting and ironic that she's charged and convicted with felony lynching, when the real lynching that's carried out is done in the same way it was carried out in the late 19th, early 20th century, where it's supposed to punish those who dare to rise up against a system."

Richards's lawyer said the conviction may have also been due to the jury's makeup: Despite Pasadena's population being 13.4 percent black, none of the jurors were. Instead, Gyamfi noted, half of the jurors were white and the rest were either Latino or Asian/Pacific Islander.

Meanwhile, California law states that interfering with police, as Deputy District Attorney Christine Kee described Richards's actions, is a misdemeanor. By charging and convicting Richards with the "lynching" felony, Gyamfi argues that the deputy district attorney and the local police department are setting a tone that tells activists and organizers that protesting is a criminal activity. If anything, Gyamfi said she thinks her client was used as an example to stop the movement locally, through intimidation.

Nonetheless, Gyamfi is not deterred.

"We're going to continue to fight for freedom," she said, "and continue to push to keep the voices of those who are shining light on what is going on in the dark by the Pasadena police department heard and amplified."

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