On July 24, The Movement for Black Lives National Convening will bring bringing together activists from all over the United States, organizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter. The organization will meet in Cleveland.
Among those activists will be such prominent leaders as Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, the original founders of Black Lives Matter. Also present will be hundreds of members and local chapter leaders like 28-year-old Jasmine Richards, a powerful activist in Pasadena, Calif., where I live.
Pasadena is typical of most midsized cities in the United States. It boasts a major university, a handful of art museums, cosmopolitan restaurants, hipster coffee shops and a popular sports arena. But bisecting the city is a major freeway with a rough but stark demographic divide. On one side live relatively wealthy and middle-class whites, while on the other side, poor black and brown folks struggle to get by.
Richards, the founder of Black Lives Matter in Pasadena, was raised in northwest Pasadena, on the wrong side of the freeway.
Today she faces a slew of legal charges, including assault, trespassing, failure to comply with a peace officer, failure to turn down amplified sound, making criminal threats and, most shockingly, making terrorist threats. The charges stem from a bold action she participated in on March 21 to mark the third anniversary of the fatal shooting by Pasadena police of 19-year-old Kendrec McDade. Richards and others blocked streets in Pasadena’s Old Town, bringing traffic to a standstill to make a statement about police brutality.
La Pintoresca Park, where I met Richards for an interview, is a large green space in the heart of the poorest part of Pasadena, not far from where McDade was shot. Low-income black and brown parents bring their kids to splash around in the water park on hot summer days. Teenagers whizz up and down the ramps of the skate park on their boards. Schoolkids gather for summer programs and free lunches. Neighbors smoke pot or sip beer from cans wrapped in paper bags. It is common to see Pasadena police harassing people in the park. It is also at this park that Richards regularly convenes the Pasadena chapter of Black Lives Matter, bringing together about 40 local neighbors to organize for change.
Richards moved to northwest Pasadena when she was 7 years old and lived near the corner of Los Robles and Orange Grove, just a few blocks from the park we were sitting in. It has a history of heavy police patrols and gang activity. She told me that law enforcement considered that street corner a “zero tolerance” area, which meant that any congregating by neighbors was treated as a threat to public safety. “I grew up lost, I grew up around here searching for answers,” she said. “I played basketball, but I didn’t have anybody to show me how to go to college, take the SATs or anything like that.”
When she was only 14, Richards lost her brother. He was murdered in Los Angeles in broad daylight in a drive-by shooting. “They said, ‘What gang are you from?’ and he said ‘I don’t gang-bang,’ and they killed him,” she explained stoically. His death devastated her. “I got into drugs, I got into drinking. I had scholarships for basketball, but I just quit basketball,” she told me. “I saw no more need to live, because I’m like, ‘You’re just gonna get killed anyway,’ ” she added.
The daily violence that’s part of being black in America has hit Richards hard. She told me how utterly weary she became of the deaths and killing. “I’m tired of putting my friends as tattoos on my arms,” she said, pulling up her sleeve to show me the name “Wilson,” flanked by the numbers 1/17/89 on one side and 8/20/11 on the other. She pointed, “This is when my friend was born, and this is his death day. ... I’m sick and tired.”
After she began protesting McDade’s killing by police, she met his mother, Anya Slaughter, and a deep bond formed between the two. “In her I see my mother, who’s lost her son,” she said. “And I see how when they lose their children, they lose themselves. And she had to relearn how to write, relearn how to eat. That moved me, and I’m determined not to lose any more friends.”
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Remaining resolute, she said, “I promised his mom that I’m going to get her justice, and I’m going to keep that promise.”
But Richards has paid a heavy personal price for her activism. “I’ve gotten fired from my job,” she told me. “I’ve gotten kicked out of my home, and I’m still here, organizing.”
When she was arrested in March, she spent several days in jail and was kept in isolation. That experience troubled her. “It’s violating to be a woman in jail,” she said. “They tried to demean me, they tried to take away my pride.” Her description is relevant to the story of Sandra Bland, a black woman who mysteriously died after being locked up in a Texas jail for three days, and whose death has provoked widespread outrage.
While she was in jail, a crowdfunding campaign by Richards’ fellow Black Lives Matter activists raised $90,000 to bail her out. Her trial begins in September, and she is aware that she is likely going to be made an example of. When I asked her how hypocritical it was for her to be charged with “making terrorist threats” while Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who allegedly confessed to murdering nine people in South Carolina recently, has yet to face a single charge with a whiff of the loaded word “terrorism,” she shrugged it off. “I’m used to this now. I don’t expect them to value our lives. It doesn’t hurt me. It used to.”
Though facing such serious charges, Richards remains positive, even euphoric, realizing the importance of her activism and the challenge she represents to the establishment. “I think it’s really funny, because when I was out here causing trouble, getting into everything, I never got in trouble by the law,” she said. “But once I picked up a bullhorn, I became a target, and that just showed me how powerful the woman’s, and black woman’s, voice is.”
I asked Richards to describe what it feels like to participate in political actions.
“I can’t even explain the feeling! It’s a feeling that starts in your toes, and it rises up and it goes into your spirit, and then something just comes out of you like a lion,” she laughed. “And it feels so good. It’s like stuff that was deep, deep, deep down and was just bursting to come out.”
“Black Lives Matter has changed my life,” said Richards, adding, “For all those who think this is just a moment, they have another think coming, because this is a movement, and it’s motivating the masses.”