Pasadena-area Black Lives Matter activist Jasmine Richards. (Video still from “Rise Up With Sonali”)

“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.”
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