Black Woman Activist Faces Charges of 'Lynching' for Protest Activities
Maile Hampton, the African American activist who was arrested for “lynching” after trying to pull a fellow protester away from police during a January rally against law enforcement brutality in Sacramento, has a large black butterfly tattooed across her neck.
Below it, scrawling script reads: “Have faith in me.”
It means: “Have faith that I am here to change the world,” said the 20-year-old with a youthful mix of passion and innocence. She got it about a year ago, around the same time she began to be politically active, she said.
Video of the rally shows police tussling with a protester in the street while activists on the sidewalk yell: “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”
A woman who appears to be Hampton enters the street, carrying a bullhorn. She grabs the handle of a sign held by the protester being detained by police and attempts to pull it away from an officer who is also holding it. She is then pushed away by other officers.
Hampton’s arrest – and sensational-sounding charge – made headlines. California’s lynching law was put on the books in 1933, to prevent mobs from forcibly taking people from police custody for vigilante justice.
But the statute has long been used against protesters as well, by police if not prosecutors. In 1999, anti-fur protesters in San Francisco who blocked access to a Neiman Marcus store in Union Square were charged under the lynching law. Prosecutors declined to take the case to court.
In 2011, police in Oakland used it against members of the Occupy movement, arresting at least two activists, Tiffany Tran and Alex Brown, on the count during a sweep of a public plaza. The charges were dropped.
In 2012, police in Los Angeles also used the lynching law against Occupy, when an activist named Sergio Ballesteros was accused of intervening in an arrest during an Art Walk – according to published reports, the charge was later dropped.
Last year, in the conservative Southern California enclave of Murrieta, it was used on at least one activist, Janet Mathieson, who was arrested while protesting in support of migrant detainees. She is scheduled for sentencing on 10 April, in a plea bargain that involves dropping the felony charge and pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing or resisting, according to Riverside County district attorney spokesman John Hall.
Shortly after Hampton’s arrest, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson asked state legislators to take the term out of the penal code, saying via Twitter on 25 February that the “word ‘lynching’ has a long and painful history in our nation. It’s time to remove its use in CA Law”.
Perhaps that is why the use of the lynching law against a black woman struck many as notable. But some activists say the felony count itself is indicative of a change in attitude of police in the California state capital.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that the Sacramento police department’s response has changed as the police brutality protests began late last year,” said Cres Vellucci of the Sacramento chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), an organization whose members attend rallies as independent observers, to monitor police response.
“It’s very apparent, at least to NLG observers like me, that officers want the protests to stop, and if people have to be abused, or arrested or otherwise mistreated, that will happen.”
‘Targeted by police’
Hampton, sitting in her lawyer’s office in mid-March with her half-brother, Jamier Sale, for an exclusive interview with the Guardian, said she believed she and Sale were being targeted by police because they were “very active in the Black Lives Matter movement”.
Her arrest took place during a counter-protest that was marching towards to a pro-law enforcement rally.
“It’s clear [law enforcement] are trying to target two of the most powerful Answer activists,” she said, referring to the Act Now To Stop War and Racism Coalition, a group that has grown in prominence nationally as an organizing body for the Black Lives Matter movement and other issues.
“Based on how law enforcement has interacted with us and tried to get information, we know that they know that we are very intersectional in our activism and we are two young educated people of color,” said Hampton, who also has joined rallies for pro-Palestine causes, raising the minimum wage (she works a low-wage job as a car detailer), organizing fast food workers and a recent event for Cesar Chavez day, among others.
“And they see that as a threat,” added Sale, who has a habit of finishing his sister’s thoughts.
Sale recently concluded his own run-in with the law, after being cited for jaywalking at a Black Lives Matter protest in November. That case made it to court in March, resulting in a $240 fine and a friend starting the hashtag #leavethisfamilyalone in support of Hampton and Sale.
Sacramento police spokesperson Traci Trapani said she “didn’t think” lynching was a common charge in a city where rallies happen on an almost weekly basis, but she was unable to provide numbers. She added that most protests were a “peaceful process” in which officers were “accommodating” of protesters.
While video of the 18 January protest that led to Hampton’s arrest makes it clear that she did have an individual interaction with law enforcement officers, there are questions about how the resulting arrest and charges are moving through the courts.
“Certainly there did not appear to be any conduct that rose to a felony level,” said Hampton’s pro bono lawyer, Linda Parisi, who has advised her client not to speak about the events surrounding the arrest itself. “It makes you say: ‘Really, you’ve charged this young woman with a felony charge of lynching? Is that right? Is that the message we want to send?’”
Other arrests but different outcomes
Parisi said two other protesters were arrested for lynching that day, with a different outcome from Hampton’s.
Emily Cinder, a 19-year-old Caucasian woman, and her fiancÃ©, Strong Walls, a 21-year-old mixed-race man who says he was booked into jail as Caucasian, faced the same charge.
Video shows multiple officers arresting Walls in the street while protesters, including Hampton, shout from the sidewalk, where police had ordered them to stay. Other video later shows Hampton in the street with officers.
Walls said he was in jail for three days – a claim confirmed by his lawyer – and was eventually released, along with Cinder, on his own recognizance. The Sacramento district attorney has not filed charges against either, although it has the ability to do so until April 2016, according to spokeswoman Shelly Orio.
Orio declined to comment specifically on any of the three activists, saying the DA did not comment on ongoing cases. She was also unable to give any statistics on the number of people prosecuted for lynching in Sacramento.
Walls said he had “no idea” why he and Cinder were released while Hampton’s charges remained.
The police did not detain Hampton and she said no officer recorded her personal information. She did not know a warrant had been issued for over a month, until officers came to her mother’s house to arrest her.
“The cops said to me you’re not charged with anything, the judge just wants to talk you,” she said. But she was booked into jail on multiple charges, including the felony count of lynching.
“It seemed very hypocritical and outrageous that … four uniformed white men came into my home, an African American woman, took me out of my home, put me in jail for standing up for black people – on lynching,” said Hampton, who has developed a public presence not just at rallies, but also through speaking at city council meetings and other venues.
“Under the circumstances of that day, it was apparent to me it was an intimidation tactic.”
An activist is born
Hampton attended her first protest in the summer of 2014 – a pro-Palestine event where she quickly found herself on the bullhorn, which is now a common practice for her at rallies, where she often leads chants. But it wasn’t until her brother went to Ferguson, Missouri that fall, after the Michael Brown verdict and as part of an Answer coalition, that she began to be active in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“A lot of the passion I have is also fear for my loved ones and for my own life and for people around me,” she said. “When [Sale] was in Ferguson, one of the members of Answer sent out like an alert, like: ‘Our comrades in Ferguson are being attacked by the police right now.’ So seeing that, not only is he a comrade but he’s my brother.
“You know, it’s like he could have been Mike Brown. So that fear really motivated me to really get the most involved that I could be.”
Parisi said she was “optimistic that we will arrive at a resolution” to Hampton’s case that involves removing the felony charge, though no negotiations with the district attorney had yet taken place, she added.
Hampton remains committed to her activism. When she was released from jail, she came out to find more than two dozen supporters waiting to greet her.
“That feeling was – it was really unexplainable,” she said. “It really just brought me to tears. Seeing that really made being an activist and being an organizer ... it all makes sense of why I am out here doing what I do.”