Activists call Sacramento DA's prosecution of ‘Black Friday 7' unneeded, wasteful
Seven local Wal-Mart protesters face six months in jail and a thousand-dollar fine
Last Black Friday, deputies arrested 41 people outside a Wal-Mart in Rancho Cordova after they sat in an intersection demanding higher wages and better work hours for employees.
A year later, seven of the protesters are still being prosecuted.
Steven Payan is among the activists facing trial. He has been protesting for workers’ rights, against police brutality and to protect the environment for nearly a decade. Payan says he has been arrested five times, but only after the November 28, 2014, event at Wal-Mart has he been prosecuted.
“This is completely new, them coming after us like this,” said Payan, a 32-year-old Woodland taxi driver. “They usually just drop the charges.”
Sacramento resident Laura Rubalcaba says much the same thing: She has been arrested twice at political protests, and both times charges were dropped.
Now, the experienced political demonstrator will actually stand trial for disobeying a police officer—which could land her, as well as Payan, in jail for six months and with a $1,000 fine.
Rubalcaba and others believe Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert may have an agenda against civil disobedience.
In particular, critics say Schubert’s office is targeting seasoned protest organizers, a tactic sources say could weaken organized protest movements.
“They are truly cracking down on dissent by trying to get rid of protest leaders,” said Rubalcaba, 52.
Police told SN&R that it has no such agenda. “The Sacramento Police Department equally respects all individuals who wish to protest and/or exercise first amendment rights,” a media relations officer said in a written statement. “Any arrests made are based on violations of laws or public ordinances.”
A DA spokesperson did not reply when asked to discuss prosecution of leaders in local civil-disobedience movements.
Numerous protests in Sacramento County have resulted in hundreds of arrests. However, never in the last 10 to 15 years have nonviolent, orchestrated protests resulted in such focused prosecution of demonstrators, according to Cres Vellucci, the Sacramento legal defense coordinator for the National Lawyers Guild.
“A lot of us are convinced this is a chance for the DA to criminalize dissent, and send the message to political activists—whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the Black Friday 7 anti-Wal-Mart protesters—that she is going to punish them for these political protests,” Vellucci said.
He argues that a clear pattern has emerged in which the new district attorney is pressing charges, rather than dropping them, against known protest leaders.
Among the more notable events was the arrest of activist Maile Hampton, with the anti-war, anti-racism group ANSWER Sacramento.
Hampton, who is also one of the Black Friday 7, was charged with “lynching” in February. This seemingly absurd charge stemmed from Hampton’s brief effort to assist a fellow demonstrator, who was being subdued by Sacramento police officers during a protest near the state Capitol. There were other arrests at the demonstration in February against police brutality, but the only charges filed were against Hampton, who was speaking through a bullhorn and was already becoming known for political activism, especially in street protests. District attorney Schubert dropped the charges in late April.
In an exclusive interview in March with The Guardian, Hampton was quoted as saying that law enforcement is clearly trying to target powerful protest leaders.
S.T. Ruiz, an organizer with ANSWER Sacramento, agrees. He told SN&R that authorities nationwide seem to showing “a pick-and-choose pattern” when it comes to breaking up protests.
“They’re going for the leaders, decapitating the head of the movement, so to speak,” Ruiz said. “Maile Hampton was targeted for her leadership with Black Lives Matter.”
Ruiz has participated in the Black Friday Wal-Mart protests of recent years. “We were doing these protests for a few years, trying to mount pressure against Wal-Mart for its devastating practices against the community,” he said. “Then all of a sudden they started prosecuting people. I would speculate it’s about the new DA setting a precedent that she’s not going to allow people to upset the status quo.”
In addition to Hampton and the Black Friday 7, Schubert has pressed charges against at least two other protest organizers, according to Vellucci. The charges were eventually reduced or dropped.
However, the process of forcing a person to make court appearances for months, only to have charges dropped, still amounts to what Vellucci calls “extrajudicial” treatment. That is, punishing people without a trial.
“They are forced to come back to court repeatedly, miss work and have this as a shadow over them,” Vellucci wrote in an email. This approach causes great inconvenience to political protesters. “And it sends a very strong message to others—who may not be able to afford to miss work—that they shouldn’t participate in political protests that may result in arrests, whether planned or not.”
Even though a criminal conviction does not mar the record of these individuals, a prior arrest may influence how they are treated in subsequent interactions with police.
“[Law enforcement officers] can run your name on their [computer] system, and they’ll see you’ve been arrested before,” Rubalcaba said. She believes these arrest records, even in the absence of a conviction, have the effect of drawing the attention of police.
In an interesting twist, the DA informed SN&R that it was not aware of charges against Rubalcaba, Payan or others. This is because the offenses initially were filed in traffic court, not as criminal charges at Sacramento County Superior Court, where the two will appear later this month.
The Wal-Mart protest of last November was one of many around the nation held on the same day. The demonstrators demanded higher wages for the country’s 1.3 million Wal-Mart employees. Many Wal-Mart workers get by with the help of government aid, which has prompted the argument that U.S. taxpayers are picking up the slack where Wal-Mart, which pulls in $16 billion in profits annually, is pinching its pennies. The company’s main stockholders—Christy, Jim, Alice and S. Robson Walton—are said to be richest family in the country, with assets totaling almost $150 billion.
Payan says he works long hours and barely has time to protest for the causes he supports.
“But I want to fight for the working class, to give them a voice,” he said. “Something needs to change so that people don’t have to work two jobs and still live in poverty.”
If the goal of the district attorney is to make would-be demonstrators think twice about expressing dissent, it may not be working as well as hoped—not against Payan, anyway. He says legal prosecution will not scare him away from protesting and civil disobedience in the future. He and Rubalcaba have both turned down plea bargain offers and will be appearing in court on November 24.
“We’ve been put in a serious position of having to face criminal charges,” said Payan, who lives with his girlfriend and their daughter. “They’re trying to turn us into criminals, use us as a fear tactic, but we’re not going to bend, or stop doing this, just because we might get arrested.”
Rubalcaba insists the outcome of her trial will not affect her approach to civil disobedience in the future, though she is still angered by her prosecution.
“It’s wasting public money and the court’s time, and nobody is benefiting but Wal-Mart,” she said.
Does this mean no Black Friday protests this year?
Payan will only say that there’s another protest planned for Friday, November 27, outside an undisclosed Wal-Mart in Sacramento at 10 a.m. And that he’ll be there.