“My goal is to save lives by any means necessary, even if that means putting mine on the line.” — Jasmine Richards, interview on “Uprising with Sonali,” July 22, 2015
Hundreds of people crowded outside the Pasadena Courthouse on Tuesday—which was also California’s primary election day—jostling one another on the cramped sidewalk to show support for Jasmine Richards. The 28-year-old Richards, who has adopted the last name Abdullah to show kinship with her mentor, Melina Abdullah, faced a sentencing hearing after being convicted of a controversial charge that was until recently called “felony lynching.”
Richards is the founder of the Pasadena chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and is beloved in her community. As of Tuesday morning, nearly 80,000 people had signed a ColorOfChange.org petition calling on Judge Elaine Lu to free Richards.
Only 44 of the hundreds who had gathered for the hearing were able to squeeze into the painfully small courtroom. One of the last to be let in, I was determined to catch a glimpse of Richards. I have interviewed her twice, both times before the incident at the heart of the trial. Richards organizes in my own neighborhood of northwest Pasadena. The petite, young organizer appeared in handcuffs, vulnerable but also awed by the support she saw.
Of the entirely non-black jury that unanimously convicted her last week, one juror wrote to the judge with a change of heart, asking Lu to impose “the minimum possible sentence for Ms. Richards,” saying, “I feel sick for upholding a law in which I do not believe.” Lu, clearly moved by that letter and many others she received from Richards’ supporters, began the hearing by announcing that she had made a tentative decision to grant probation. There was a palpable sigh of relief in the courtroom, and Richards, unable to help herself, raised her fist in the air and looked around, smiling through tears.
Defense attorney Nana Gyamfi then spoke passionately, calling attention to the online petition and the significance of Richards’ political activism within the spectrum of this nation’s history of civil rights. She emphasized the troubled relationship the black community has with police, a relationship so frayed that she has raised her own child (Gyamfi is African-American) to not dial 911 in an emergency for fear of what police might do.
The prosecutor, however, was defiant, retorting that none of the political or historical context of Richards’ activism mattered and that in fact police were to be lauded for showing restraint during the altercation. She maintained that Richards deserved the full wrath of the justice system, including a stay-away order from La Pintoresca Park, where Richards organizes low-income, black youths. Richards once more reacted, letting out a pleading “no.” The park is in the heart of Pasadena’s black community, frequented by young people but also heavily patrolled by police.
In the end, Lu backed off from her original partiality for probation and surprised us by sentencing Richards to 90 days in the Los Angeles County jail minus time served, three years of probation and 52 courses in anger management. The only point on which she remained firm was the stay-away order: Despite the prosecution’s repeated requests, the judge refused to ban Richards from her beloved park. It was the sole silver lining in what appeared to be a milder version of our criminal justice system’s “lynching” of the very person accused of lynching. As Abdullah, Richards’ mentor and close friend, said at the Tuesday morning rally, it appears as though “the state is coming after those who dare to protest state-sanctioned violence.”
Michael Williams, Richards’ fellow organizer in Pasadena, also spoke at the rally and had a message for Pasadena police: “By arresting her, charging her, convicting her, you have lost the ground that you had, you have empowered people that weren’t empowered ... and you have made yourself look feeble and weak.”
Indeed, the altercation that resulted in Richards’ arrest did not seem to warrant the police’s heavy-handedness, a point on which California State Sen. Holly Mitchell agrees. Mitchell passed a bill last year to change the official name of the charge from “lynching” to “unlawfully removing someone from police custody.” Ahead of Richards’ sentencing hearing, she released a strongly worded statement, saying, “It is difficult, when viewing the video of Jasmine Richards’ encounter with the police, to follow the reasoning behind a felony conviction. Sadly, this case is likely to contribute to the notion that justice is selectively enforced.”
It is worth reviewing what actually happened that led to Richards’ arrest and conviction, for it did not happen within an overtly political or activist context:
Richards and several of her friends and colleagues became involved in an altercation between Pasadena police and a black woman who had apparently left a restaurant without paying her bill. Richards, who had been leading a demonstration nearby, attempted to intervene. While she was not the only one to do so, she was the only one of the group whom the police arrested two days later and charged with “attempted felony lynching,” among other things.
It is the “lynching” charge that provoked the greatest public ire after Richards was convicted last week. News outlets all over the world reported that she was the first black person to be tried and convicted of such a horrendously named accusation. That a black woman was convicted of a charge stemming from the United States’ hideous history of mob murders of African-Americans struck a collective nerve. Richards is also the only BLM activist nationwide to have received such a severe sentence since the movement began in 2014.
But why did Richards and her friends intervene in the arrest of a stranger? Black folks and BLM activists have every reason to fear for the safety of black women being arrested by police. It is not just the high-profile case of Sandra Bland in Texas that underscores that fear; in addition to Bland, four other black women died in police custody last July alone. One report tallied 15 cases of black women who died in encounters with police. If today’s police and justice system are seen as the modern-day version of a lynch mob, there is something seriously wrong with our society.
Among the most recent cases is that of Wakiesha Wilson, 36, who authorities say hung herself in her jail cell in Los Angeles. Richards had been working closely with Wilson’s family when convicted. Wilson’s aunt, Sheila Hines, spoke at the rally outside Richards’ sentencing hearing, saying, “She has been a voice for my family when we were unable to speak. ... She’s been a great force in our lives.”
Gyamfi has said that Richards will probably serve 36 days of her 90-day sentence—a sentence that could have been as long as four years. As is usually the case, the probation will more than likely be onerous and could blunt Richards’ activism for three long years, even though she will be able to return to the park where she organizes. The 52 anger management courses mandated in the sentence are disgraceful, however. Black women have so much to be outraged by, and yet when women like Richards use their voices, they are subject to the ugly stereotype of the “angry black woman” and are told to submerge their rage and “manage” their anger.
I first met Richards in 2014, when BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors brought her to an interview on my show, then named “Uprising.” Cullors was among the hundreds of people demanding that the judge “Free Jasmine” this week.
I asked her if she considered Richards’ sentence a victory or a defeat.
“It would be politically immature of me to say that this was not a victory,” she replied. “But it would be naive of me to say that this was a victory.”
And so the struggle for black lives continues, with the hope that Richards’ case has energized rather than dampened the movement.
Watch Sonali Kolhatkar’s special report from the rally outside Jasmine Richards’ sentencing hearing at www.RisingUpWithSonali.com