The young and the relentless: Sacramento’s next generation of activists is up in the establishment’s face
And groups like Black Lives Matter and homelessness advocates are facing blowback
Three white SUVs with the words “Homeland Security” emblazoned on them sit parked in a row on Fifth Street. Farther down the block on H Street are two officers on horseback. Near them by the Starbucks, a couple of California Highway Patrol vehicles. It’s a healthy show of force, but the only people around on this cloudless Sunday afternoon are a group of kids gathered at the foot of the Robert T. Matsui Federal Courthouse on I Street.
Two young white women, who can’t be older than 21, hold a banner. It reads “Black lives matter! Sacramento to Rhode Island.” The image on it is a cop with a baton raised, as if about to strike, and a solid red line through the officer. There are nearly 100 activists gathered, from teenage kids wearing T-shirts that read “Police, it’s a gang” to seniors holding a “Raging Grannies” sign and singing about Michael Brown.
Estevan Hernandez, a 26-year-old Latino activist, steps in front of the banner. A white teenager, Independence Taylor holds a megaphone while Hernandez thanks everyone for coming out and introduces the day’s first speaker: Maile Hampton.
Hampton, a slim black 20-year-old woman in tights and a gray sweatshirt, steps in front of the crowd. She’s confident, holding her right fist in the air while addressing everyone as sisters and brothers. “Race relations are at a tense time,” she begins. “We are all striving to resolve this and bring peace to our community.”
In recent weeks, Hampton has found herself on the front lines of racial strife in Sacramento. Just days before this rally, on February 24, she was a couple of blocks east on I Street, sitting in a jail cell on $100,000 bail, facing felony charges. At that same time, Mayor Kevin Johnson was talking about her at a city council meeting.
More on her situation later. For now, it’s important to remember that this local movement is bigger than Maile Hampton. She’s just part of a new generation of social-justice activists in Sacramento, fresh-faced (and maybe even a little angry) young adults who, after witnessing what happened in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, want to shine light on the police violence and abuse of power right here in our backyard. On discrimination against homeless people. On unfair wages. On corporate corruption.
“There’s an out-of-proportion targeting of black people by law enforcement. And that’s not lost on the young people that are getting involved,” said Delphine Brody, a local activist who mentors some of these younger protesters.
But by shining this light, these young rebels have angered the proverbial bear. And now, they say they’re the ones in law and justice’s crosshairs.
Tony Bias, a black 17-year-old who was arrested earlier this year in what he describes as a brutal police action, says the police are preying on his friends. “What they did is target [Hampton], a young black woman who is a strong leader in our movement, who goes to numerous events and causes,” he told SN&R.
The law isn’t going easy on these kids, either. Seasoned activist Cres Vellucci, a co-coordinator with the National Lawyers Guild of Sacramento, which bears witness at local political actions, says police brutality in the city these days is unprecedented.
“The arrests at Arden Fair on Black Friday, and several arrests since, are the most violent I have seen made by [the Sacramento Police Department] in decades of legal observing work,” he explained via email.
Dozens of motivated young activists, CHP, mounted police, Homeland Security. Just another Sunday in Sacramento.A wake-up call
It seems that almost all of Sacramento’s new young activists remember how they discovered the world of social justice.
Tony Bias, with piercings on his lips, is originally from Tennessee, where he says police aggression “is so much worse” than in California. He remembers being at home one night, with family and relatives, when law enforcement burst into his home, guns drawn. “They handcuffed everyone, even my little cousin, who was 13.”
Estevan Hernandez, an activist with the $15-minimum-wage movement and the local Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition—and a sort of elder statesman in the group—remembers police harassing and intimidating him as a teenager in the Bay Area.
“I was biking to work, on the sidewalk, and I heard over the loudspeaker ’Get on the ground,’” he recalled. This was in El Cerrito, on San Pablo Boulevard, on his way to work at the local bowling alley.
“And just like that I was on the ground,” because police swiftly tackled him, then handcuffed and searched him. When they didn’t find anything, they “told me I had fit the description of somebody,” Hernandez says, and let him go.
Jennifer Morales, a 24-year-old social worker who spends her free time doing activism at the Sacramento Immigration Alliance, remembers Proposition 227, nearly two decades ago. “I was 9 years old when my parents took me to my first protest,” she said. Her parents, both immigrants, were activists, too, and fought hard against Prop. 227 in 1998. They failed—but their effort left an imprint on Morales.
Independence Taylor, a 17-year-old homeless teen, got involved in social justice just this past year, after seeing the events in Ferguson unfold online.
“I got angry when I heard stuff like that,” he said of Michael Brown’s story, “it just gives me more fuel to my fire.”
Theses four activists, and dozens more in Sacramento, aligned this past year under the banner of ending police brutality and holding law enforcement accountable. “It made it really personal,” Morales says of watching what happened with Brown and Eric Garner in 2014. “I have a younger brother who is 20 years old, lives in Sacramento, loves the Dodgers, is always wearing a Dodgers hat. I saw my brother as the possibility of being Michael Brown.” Morales’ brother is now an activist as well.
Taylor and Bias actually just experienced their first protest, together, this past Black Friday. “It was all by chance. … My friend sent me an invite,” Taylor remembered. “’We totally need to go to this,’” he told Bias.
Bias says he expected a peaceful gathering. But when they arrived at the Black Lives Matter rally at Arden Fair Mall, they were surprised to see police helicopters, cops mounted on horseback and officers wielding batons and wearing riot gear. It felt “escalated,” Bias said.
“It was really energizing, since it was our first protest, we were getting all ramped up,” Taylor said.
“I like to say that, before that moment, I was not conscious of what was really happening” in places like Ferguson, Bias said. “But police used excessive force on me that night.”
The teen—who says he has a 4.3 GPA and will probably attend UC Berkeley next year (acceptance letters arrive March 26)—says he was walking on the sidewalk along Arden Way, but there were too many people and he was pushed into the street. Law enforcement had already closed part of Arden because of the protest, “but then five cops scrambled to arrest me,” Bias says.
“I went and stepped forward to grab him, to pull him away, and I got tackled by four officers” as well, Taylor explained.
Bias’ story: “They flipped me over. My button broke and my pants ripped and my underwear was showing. I have a permanent scar on my cheek from when an officer held my face to the ground, and four officers held my knee to my back, and an officer pressed against my throat to where I couldn’t even breathe.”
The two teens were arrested that day after Thanksgiving for unlawful assembly and obstructing traffic. In January, they both received notices via mail that the charges had been dropped. Police would not discuss the incident.
Bias says he’s grateful and lucky that there was a crowd around. “If that happened when I was alone at night, I could have been killed.”‘Lynching’ and targeting youth leadership
Independence Taylor walks up to the city council podium, wearing a Kings jersey. “Maile Hampton has been arrested and her charges need to be dropped immediately,” he tells the mayor and city council.
Next, it is a young white woman named Addison Kalasatno. “Maile’s place is not behind bars. It is here with us, creating awareness and change in Sacramento,” she says.
Later, another young white woman, giving only the name Emily, wearing a “Free Maile!” T-shirt: “Her arrest and bail are clearly meant by Sacramento PD to intimidate and silence the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept across the country,” she argues.
Then Bias. “She’s a beautiful young black woman fighting for change in this world, and she should not be silenced. We will not be silenced. Free Maile.”
This parade of support for Hampton continued for more than an hour during a city council meeting on February 24, the day after Hampton was arrested on charges of obstructing justice and “lynching.” Her arrest and her fellow activists’ response at this meeting made the local Black Lives Matter movement front-page news.
At first, the mayor and council members didn’t know what commenters were talking about. Lynching? A kid arrested? But staff quickly surmised what was up.
Berry Accius, advocate with local group Voices of Youth, said the council members didn’t even know about Hampton, or that there was still a law called “lynching” on the books, and that a black person could be charged with it. “That lets us know that the moment we stop and be quiet, [law enforcement] is going to do more things like this.”
Hampton is new to activism; she’s only been going to protests—at the Nestlé water plant in south Sacramento, challenging their contract with the city, and elsewhere—since Ferguson.
Her charge stems from events on Sunday, January 18—more than four weeks before her actual arrest. That afternoon, there was a pro-law-enforcement rally at the state Capitol. Hampton and others in the Black Lives Matter contingent showed up to counter-protest, to remind the cops that they need to be accountable.
While walking down Ninth Street, however, police warned some protesters in this group to get out of the street, even though it had been shut down to vehicle traffic.
A YouTube video from the incident shows one officer grabbing and detaining a male protester. Hampton appears on the video and allegedly tries to free this man, grabbing his arm while the cop is holding him. This scene from the video, which has more than 6,000 views on YouTube and an incredible 781,637 on Facebook, lasts less than four seconds, but it is the basis of Hampton’s felony “lynching” charge. She’s scheduled to be arraigned this Monday, March 16, and could serve up to four years.
“I was with her at all of these demonstrations,” says fellow activist Morales. She says she couldn’t sleep the night she learned of Hampton’s arrest. “That could have been me.”
Sacramento Police Department spokesman Doug Morse explained to SN&R that “several protesters blocked traffic on Capitol Mall” on January 18, and that when officers were trying to detain offenders, “[Hampton] pulled prisoners from police’s custody.” He added that the “Sacramento DA’s office reviewed the case and filed charges, and Sacramento Superior Court signed an arrest warrant based on the facts of the case.”
Hampton’s lawyer, Linda Parisi, has urged her client not to speak with media while she reaches out to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office in hopes of getting her charges dropped. A prominent criminal defense attorney who’s taking on Hampton’s cause, she did tell SN&R that slapping a 20-year-old activist with a felony charge, let alone a young black girl with a “lynching” violation, isn’t the way to do things.
“A felony has significant collateral consequences. Is this what we want to do with our young people who are expressing themselves about a relevant social issue?” Parisi said. “Do we really want to arrest young people for felonies, for engaging in acts of civil disobedience? Is that where we really want to go?”
Historically “lynching,” or Penal Code 405a, has been used in California in cases where individuals break an inmate out of jail—but to harm them further, as was the case with white mobs lynching black people.
Hannah Kagan-Moore, one of the young activists that held the banner on Sunday and a friend of Hampton, said she was stunned when she learned of the charges. “Maile is a wonderful, brilliant, creative, smart young woman who cares deeply about justice and our community,” the UC Davis graduate student said, “and there’s absolutely no reason she should be in jail.”
Mayor Johnson took to Twitter after the February 24 meeting, tweeting the next day: “The word ’lynching’ has a long and painful history in our nation. It’s time to remove its use in [California] law.” A spokesperson with his office said Johnson would be taking action to try to remove the term from the penal code.
Parisi wouldn’t go into specifics about Hampton’s case, but insists that “the legislative history of ’lynching’ does not correspond with her charges.”
Some hope that Johnson’s sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement and interest in Hampton’s case will move the needle. For instance, last year when the district attorney in Ferguson opted not to charge Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, the mayor didn’t hesitate to criticize the decision—which stirred up controversy in local law-enforcement circles.
Still, they’re not too hopeful. “I think that he is definitely a smooth talker,” said Brody, a regular at city council meetings on Tuesday nights and a co-leader with the Community Dinner Project. “Whether he will go to bat for our cause remains to be seen. But we want to hold him accountable.”
Young activist Bias agrees. “Especially as a black person in power, [Johnson] needs to be involved, to make sure no one goes through what he went through at a young age, or what I’m going through now,” he said.
“If you can’t trust the police, then who’s going to protect us? No one.”A bigger conversation
It’s a Tuesday evening just before 5 p.m., and there’s a picnic on the Ninth Street sidewalk in front of City Hall. Homemade organic rice and beans, vegetable soup with chard and potato, a few casseroles, even fresh-squeezed lemonade. Most of the food is all-natural, noncorporate eats donated by volunteers, according to James Clark, one of the organizers. Some of it is even gluten-free. There’s a small can on the ground for trash and another for recycling. People wash the cutlery afterword so they can reuse it next Tuesday. Attendance is healthy; at the end of the month, up to 150 people will arrive for this free meal.
And they’re all breaking the law.
Teenaged activist Taylor is one of those enjoying the fare. “We could be arrested at any point for serving food,” he says. This is because of an ordinance passed in recent years by city council that prohibits nonpermitted serving of food to homeless, one of many new policies that activist say criminalizes the poor.
“It’s ridiculous,” he argued—but he also admits that there are no longer cops on bikes hanging out around chow line like they did when the Community Dinner Project first started.
Taylor is one of a dozen young Sacramentans who eat and serve at the Project, then stay to speak later that night at city council meetings.
The mayor has spoken directly to these new activists from the dais many times. And Councilman Jay Schenirer even held a meeting this past Friday morning with activists at City Hall to discuss homelessness issues.
But the harassment continues.
One way police target dissenters lately is with vehicle-code-type infractions: jaywalking, blocking traffic and so on. “The other way you can be oppressive to a community is you subject them to stringent enforcement of traffic rules that you’re not doing to anybody else,” explained lawyer Parisi.
Police issue these vehicle infractions and violators don’t get a jury trial. They just have to show up to court—but oftentimes that never happens, which turns the infraction into a misdemeanor. Last week’s Department of Justice report on Ferguson noted that this practice is common, that it is a way to silence dissent.
“Throughout history, it’s always been like that,” Bias argued. “They’re scared, and that’s why they’re resorting to intimidation tactics.”
It helps that these next-generation activists aren’t alone. “When cops want to retaliate against you, it’s because you are making a lot of noise, and if they pinpoint you it is because you are actually doing something,” Morales said.
“There’s a fear instilled with being an activist, but the biggest fear is being silent.”
Accius with Voices of Youth says that while he’s worried America is no longer listening—“We take a timeout to talk about a dress on the Internet, but we can’t take a timeout to talk about why black lives matter?”—he understands that impacting change is the long game, and that this next generation will be relentless. That what we’re seeing in America “is a wake-up call for people who have been harassed by the police to get up and say something,” he said.
The catch is that these loud, persistent kids getting up in the face of the mayor and cops is, in a way, poking the bear.
“Law enforcement never likes to have bad publicity,” says Brody. “They prefer to have a system where they can police themselves, and where there’s no accountability.”
National Lawyers Guild coordinator Velucci, who was there on Black Friday when Bias was arrested, points out that a big problem is that law enforcement doesn’t even police its own.
“There is no doubt that officers who may not be guilty of any abuse don’t like to have demonstrators walk up to them and accuse them of being ’killer cops,’” he said. “Some have personally confessed to me they don’t like it. But what they fail to realize is that they, the ’good’ officers, have a role to play in this. And that is speaking up when they see a fellow officer hurt someone.”
But despite the confrontations and very serious legal issues, Parisi reminds that it’s these kids’ right to speak out. “This movement is on the right track, and we need to have a discussion. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what a vibrant democracy does.”
The Black Lives Matter movement will keep the conversation going.
“I’m very hopefully, and really inspired,” Hernandez said, “because what the movement has done is forced these issues of police brutality and state oppression into the mainstream. Whether or not they think it’s real, they’re talking about it.”