Activists and observers are paying close attention to the pending case of 20-year old Maile Hampton in Sacramento, California, and what it may mean for future protests against police abuse. Hampton, an African-American activist with the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition, is scheduled to appear in court on April 9 on a charge of “lynching” – removing a person from police custody – stemming from a Jan. 18, 2015, protest at the California State Capitol.
Hampton and others were involved in one of the many ongoing protests over the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice at the Capitol at the same time a pro-police rally was occurring. Video of the protest shows ANSWER activists and others walking and then confronting police, who have an individual on the ground; as protesters get closer, multiple officers converge and tell the protesters to stay back and then begin grabbing individuals in the crowd. Some of the individuals pull away, and others are pulled away by members of the crowd.
Sections 405a and 405b of California’s penal code state, “The taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer is a lynching,” and, “Every person who participates in any lynching is punishable by imprisonment . . . for two, three or four years.”
Hampton was identified by police as one of the people in the crowd attempting to pull people away from the police and was arrested later at her home. She was initially held on $100,000 bail, but has since been released.
Linda Parisi, Hampton’s lawyer, was quoted in The UK-based Guardian as saying, “It’s an irony that a woman of color, who was at a public rally to shine a light on police brutality, is arrested for lynching.”
“Cruel irony” might be a more descriptive and apt term.
“The current ‘lynching’ definition in [California’s penal] code is an affront to the estimated 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites who were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1962 as a means to threaten and intimidate African Americans from exercising their freedoms and their right to vote,” said California State Senator Holly Mitchell. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), who spoke to the Sacramento Bee regarding the controversy, was reportedly asked by former NBA standout and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to lead the effort to have the language of the law changed. Johnson said he was “shocked” to learn of the penal code’s use of the term.
A Barbaric Crime
Lynching of African Americans was virtually nonexistent until after the end of the Civil War. The act is popularly known as the taking of a Black person (usually male) from their home or a jail by a mob; the person is beaten/tortured, sometimes burned, sometimes drowned, and/or hung from a tree, lamp post, train trestle, or tied to a place where their body would be easily seen by the public. The charge of rape of a white woman was most often the reason used by lynchers, however, a variety of affronts to white supremacy perceived as “crimes” were often used as justification for lynching. According to historian Arthur Draper in his 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, law enforcement officers were often known as active participants who would “either condone or wink at the mob action.” Additionally, the US Supreme Court conducted the only criminal trial in its history when it charged Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sheriff Joseph Shipp, a deputy sheriff and four other individuals with criminal contempt. The charges came after a mob lynched an innocent Black man, wrongfully convicted for the rape of a white woman in 1906, whose execution had been stayed by the Supreme Court.
Black women were also victims of lynchings, as well as some whites throughout the US South, and there were also numerous cases of people of Mexican descent being lynched throughout the Southwestern United States.
The actual number of African Americans lynched in the United States may never be known. A Feb. 10, 2015, article in The New York Times focuses on a report released by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) that documents just over 3,900 victims of lynching. The report covers the years 1877 to 1950 and 12 Southern states. Prior to the EJI report, historians relied on documentation provided by Tuskegee Institute in Southeastern Alabama, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Chicago Tribune.
The NAACP, officially founded in 1909, began publishing its list of lynch victims in 1919. A bill sponsored by Leonidas Dyer (R-Missouri) in 1922 was the organization’s first attempt to use mass public pressure to pass federal legislation that would criminalize lynching. The bill fell victim to Southern Democrat filibustering and was never passed. Close to 200 anti-lynching bills were brought before Congress between 1882 and 1935, all meeting the same fate. In 2005, the Associated Press reported that the US Senate, led by Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) and George Allen (R-Virginia), “acknowledged its own failure to stand against the lynching of thousands of black people,” and apologized “for blocking antilynching legislation at a time when mob violence against blacks was commonplace.”
One Woman’s Fight
Approximately 30 years before the NAACP published its first list, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a founder of both that organization and its predecessor, known as the Niagara Movement, had single-handedly taken on the scourge of lynching in numerous editorials, books, pamphlets and public addresses. Wells-Barnett even took her crusade against lynching to London, England, where she was successful in inspiring the creation of an antilynching society in 1894 to pressure the US to do something about the crime.
It was in 1909 that Wells-Barnett testified to block the reappointment of Frank Davis as sheriff in Cairo, Illinois, for violating that state’s Anti-Mob Violence Statute of 1905. Illinois had enacted the statute that allowed for the dismissal of “any sheriff who permitted a prisoner to be taken from him and lynched” after a riot had occurred in the city of Springfield. A mob took “Frog” James from Davis’ custody and brutally murdered James for allegedly killing a white woman. According to Wells-Barnett in her autobiography, the antilynching statute was upheld; the governor of the state refused to reinstate Davis; and Illinois saw no more lynchings from that point on.
Implications for Dissent and Protest
“I think the charges against Maile Hampton are an attack on the #BlackLivesMatter movement as well as on Ms. Hampton,” Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, a cofounder of Black Lives Matter told Truthout.
Aside from being a cruel irony, there may be some ominous implications of Hampton’s alleged offense. While not charged with “lynching,” six activists in New York currently face charges of assault, resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and rioting for a similar event. The charges stem from their alleged role in freeing a man from police custody during the Millions March for Eric Garner in December of last year.
Police allege that Eric Linsker, a professor at the City University of New York, attempted to throw a garbage can from the Brooklyn Bridge onto the roadway beneath the bridge. Two officers attempted to arrest Linsker when, according to the police, they were “swarmed” by protestors who allegedly kicked and punched them and helped Linsker to get away.
Subsequently, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton appeared before the New York State Legislature asking that the penalty of “resisting arrest” be upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony. That label could cause future problems for prospective protesters down the line. “The felony designation would carry a penalty of more than one year in jail,” according to Robert Boyle, a New York-based criminal defense attorney. “A felony conviction has consequences that stay with you the rest of your life: no vote, no to certain jobs,” Boyle told Truthout.
Cullors-Brignac agreed. “These [kinds of] charges are a form of state violence. Many Black folks end up in the courts with little support and are forced to take plea bargains that steal years off of their lives,” said Cullors-Brignac.
Regardless of the outcome of Hampton’s case, activists say they will not be deterred from shining a light on the issue of police violence.
“This collision of forces – police abuse, unnecessary incarceration and felony disenfranchisement – that’s part and parcel of the prison-industrial complex; we have to continue to protest it. We have to organize against it. We have to fight to end that system as we currently know it,” Cullors-Brignac said.