The annual celebration of LGBT Pride Month started off on a less-than-joyful note in Pasadena, Calif., where an out Black Lives Matter organizer was convicted of a crime formerly known as "felony lynching" June 1.
Today, Jasmine “Abdullah” Richards was sentenced to 90 days in jail with 18 days served, followed by probation, according to a tweet from a Los Angeles TV station KABC reporter Miriam Hernandez.
The fact that Richards was sentenced to serve additional time behind bars has activists who have rallied around her case outraged, claiming that the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office is targeting Richards because of her dogged critique of local law enforcement.
The 28-year-old black lesbian and founder of Black Lives Matter Pasadena was found guilty of “taking by means of a riot any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer,” a felony called “lynching” until last year. The jury that convicted her on June 1 contained no black people — and only two people of color. Immediately after the verdict was announced, California Superior Court Judge Elaine Lu remanded Richards into custody — a move her attorney Nana Gyamfi called “surprising.”
Outside the Pasadena courtroom today, a livestream from Ustream user PMBeers depicted the passionate, multi-cultural rally supporting Richards. Participants could be heard chanting, singing, dancing, beating drums, and a performing a somber, crowd-silencing rendition of “Strange Fruit.” Throughout, the crowd of supporters chanted shouts of “Free Jasmine! Right Now!" “We gonna be alright,” and other slogans as they waited for the sentence to be announced.
Once the sentence was read, Black Lives Matter leaders like Patrisse Cullors expressed their dismay, saying that even this decision was an injustice.
"Will you show up for us?" Cullors called out at the rally, speaking to L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who is running unopposed for re-election today. Lacey has come under criticism for failing to prosecute law enforcement officers involved in shooting deaths of civilians. A Los Angeles Times report from February found that since 2004, just one officer has been prosecuted for his role in a fatal officer-involved shooting — and he was acquitted. For context, the Times notes that there have been "more than 2,000 Southern California police shootings since 2004.”
Those close to Richards see her prosecution and sentencing as a clear attempt by police to intimidate the Black Lives Matter movement and make an example of Richards. But it's also a powerful testament to the fact that the movement remains centered around and anchored by queer black women in particular.
Richards’s fiancée, April Sagarra, says she is devastated by her partner's conviction. Together for five years, and engaged for three, Sagarra says she has been alongside Richards "since day one."
“It’s difficult. It’s heartbreaking,” she tells The Advocate via phone. “It’s just something I didn’t imagine happening. I fear for her. … I just don’t know what the police are going to do.”
The woman Sagarra calls “her warrior” began her activism work in Los Angeles. Richards joined the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, in part because of her experiences with violence growing up in northwest Pasadena.
As is the case with many activists within the movement for black lives, the shooting death of Michael Brown “really touched [Richards],” says Sagarra, and she woke up one morning determined to make a difference.
“She said she was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” recalls Sagarra. “A lot of her friends died [in her community].”
When Kendrec McDade was killed by Pasadena police officers in 2015, Richards took her activism back home. She started a chapter of Black Lives Matter in Pasadena and became a vocal critic of city officials and police.
That opposition may have contributed to Richards becoming a target for those same agencies, says her co-organizer and friend, scholar and activist Dr. Malina Abdullah.
“The police chief immediately came to know who Jasmine [Richards] was,” Abdullah tells The Advocate via phone. “As Black Lives Matter Pasadena was formed, it presented an immediate threat to the existing social order.”
Abdullah says new visibility for black lives and a looming contentious election are just two of the reasons the charges against Richards are political.
“It’s punishment for standing up, just as black people were lynched in the late 19th and early 20th century for standing up,” says Abdullah. "It's really the system's lynching of Jasmine Richards."
Richards's conviction stems from an August 29 incident that took place when she and other members of Black Lives Matter Pasadena were involved in an unrelated demonstration at a local park. Police said they were trying to catch a woman who left a restaurant without paying, and Richards and the other activists allegedly prevented police from making the arrest. The incident was captured on video, though it's difficult to positively identify those featured in the tape posted to Vimeo by Pasadena Now.
Although "lynching" charges are usually brought in cases where violence or rioting has resulted in suspects being removed from police custody, there was no such violence during the August encounter with Richards and police, says Gyamfi. Nevertheless, prosecutors classified the peaceful demonstration as a "riot."
“There is something about blackness being equated with violence," Gyamfi explains. "When you have young black people who are angry, who are upse t... and some of them are cussing and they are affirming black lives … it’s very difficult to get people, especially nonblack people, to not see violence [even if there is no physical altercation]. We know that black bodies are seen as violent in and of themselves, that’s how we end up with black people being killed left and right.”
The suspect police were initially seeking was ultimately apprehended, and neither Richards nor other activists were arrested until several days later. Richards was the only activist charged with a felony, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Richards is the first black woman convicted under the state-specific statute, but she is not the first charged. Her supporters contend that California police have frequently used the statute to criminalize peaceful activists and organizers, rather than cracking down on the unruly, violent mobs the law was created to prevent.
In fact, the law was initially drafted in the 1930s to protect people of color — specifically black people — from being taken from police custody by angry mobs of white people who would then hang them as a form of racially motivated vigilantism. The Times notes that, when it was passed, the antilynching law was a progressive step forward for California, an attempt to stem the tide of extrajudicial killings nationwide that Congress was failing to address.
The law's problematic modern application first gained attention last year, when Maile Hampton, a 20-year-old biracial woman, was charged with “felony lynching” following a January 2015 Black Lives Matter protest in Sacramento. The outrage over the graphically named statute being used to prosecute a woman of color inspired lawmakers to drop the “lynching” name of the law. The law is now known as "attempting to unlawfully remove a suspect from police officers," according to Gawker. Eventually, Hampton’s felony charges were also dropped, though she was still charged with interfering with a police officer, which is a misdemeanor.
But Richards wasn’t so lucky. She now has a felony conviction on her record, under a law originally meant to protect black people from vigilante justice.
As the LGBT community gathers this month to celebrate our forebearers, who launched the modern-day movement with the legendary Stonewall riots protesting police brutality in New York City, the friends and family of Jasmine Richards are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
But like those activists of decades past, the ongoing injustice serves as motivation for Richards's supporters. The conviction and sentencing aren't surprising, they say.
“What we are protesting is an unjust system,” says Abdullah. “Why would we expect justice in this case, especially for a young, black poor queer woman?”
Richards could spend a maximum of four years in jail for the felony charge, though her Black Lives Matter family is working diligently so that doesn't happen. Fellow activists launched a petition at ColorOfChange.com, asking the judge to spare Richards any jail time for what the petition calls the "preposterous" charges against her. More than 80,000 signatures were delivered to the judge today.
Expecting this outcome, but hoping for probation, Sagarra remains confident in her future spouse.
"Even though they want to break her down, they’re not stopping anything,” says Sagarra. “They can’t break the movement, and they can’t break her spirit.”