By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – June – and maybe part of July – is shaping up to be a month or so of political trials in Sacramento, as anti-Nazi protestors and poor people advocates are slated to appear in what could be “show” trials.
Although Americans generally believe this country doesn’t punish protestors, in fact, Sacramento County does. More than a dozen activists over the past year have faced charges that could land them in jail from six months to a year or more.
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert – infamous because of her failure this past March to charge two Sacramento police officers for killing unarmed Stephon Clark – carries the big stick. It’s up to her, not the police, whom to hold for trial.
For the most part, the record shows she fails to file charges in the majority of cases involving free speech – including the 84 people, including clergy, reporters and legal observers, arrested in March.
But, there are exceptions.
Poor Peoples Campaign demonstrators Rene’ Castle and Josh Brennecke will go to trial either late next week or the week after for putting a small cloth flag that caused no damage over a statue in the State Capitol Rotunda in June of last year.
And late in June or early July, anti-Nazi demonstrators Michael Williams of Woodland, Porfirio Paz and Yvette Felarca, claiming self-defense, will go to trial for their part in an anti-Nazi protest at the State Capitol in June of 2016. Seven of their comrades were hospitalized with knife and other wounds.
The one white supremacist charged and expected to be tried in June for a second time – the first trial ended in a hung jury – accepted a plea deal for two years time-served and will be released in July.
Schubert’s record is spotty – late in 2018 and early in 2019, she chose to not file charges involving several Black Lives Matter protestors, but she also filed, and then dismissed when the activists insisted on a trial, charges against some Stephon Clark protesters at Golden 1 Arena a year ago, and another Black Lives Matter protestor had his charges dropped on the eve of trial.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Tanya Faison wasn’t charged last week for her part in a protest at a lunch for DA Schubert – another activist has a court date next week to learn her fate.
But two other Black Lives Matter activists – including one who was sent to the hospital after SPD hurled him into a sign – were charged for protesting Schubert. They took a plea deal last week rather than prolong a prosecution that had forced them to come to court more than a half dozen times just to prove their innocence.
As for Brennecke, represented pro bono by National Lawyers Guild attorney Michael Hansen, and Castle, represented by the Public Defender, they were part of the national Poor People’s Campaign, which seeks to finish Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, and, like MLK, are willing to be arrested.
The PPC held nonviolent protests all over the nation, including the Capitol in Sacramento to promote a “moral agenda, which calls for major changes to address systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative, including repeal of the 2017 federal tax law, implementation of federal and state living wage laws, universal single-payer health care, and clean water for all.”
There were about 80 arrests in Sacramento, all non-violent and exceedingly peaceful. At times, demonstrators found it difficult even to be arrested at the Capitol.
Brennecke and Castle are not apologetic for their political action, which consisted of putting a small cloth flag on a statue – but not just any statue – in the State Capitol rotunda.
“Our Indigenous elders wanted to emphasize the importance of resilience against colonization and particularly against the tribute of a statue to the genocidal maniac (Christopher) Columbus in the middle of the rotunda. They asked me to climb on top of the statue and cover the murderer with the American Indian Movement flag. Once asked, I did not hesitate for a moment.
“As a white ally I was willing to use my privilege any way I could to stand up for Indigenous communities and rights. Especially as a white man, I knew that I would be treated more delicately than a person of color…so I jumped at the opportunity for a peaceful yet strong message to California state legislators. I was honored to spend the rest of my day in jail,” Brennecke said.
Castle was just as pointed, explaining why he put the small banner on the statute, noting that a woman handed it to him and “wordlessly” asked him to help.
“I had two choices: I could take her banner, place it on the statue, and be arrested or I could choose to become yet another white man in a long, sad history of white men who turn away and leave an indigenous request unanswered. I took the banner, and placed it on the statue. The banner kept slipping as I tried to drape it in place so her message could be seen upon the statue.
“The police closed in, laid hands on me, took the banner away and wadded it into a ball. As my hands were placed forcibly behind my back, I was thankful the focus was on me, as I watched her slip safely away, unnoticed into the crowd. I spent the rest of the day in jail. It was a very good Monday,” Castle wrote.
For their efforts, although political and nonviolent, both defendants face up to six months in jail if convicted. They are charged with failure to obey the directions of a peace officer.
Both are expected to use the opportunity in court to speak about what they did, and why they did it. The prosecution has to prove only that law enforcement gave a “lawful” order and it was not heeded by Castle and Brennecke.
Court observers said the defendants may offer an affirmative defense of freedom of speech and expression.
A jury will decide if the two are guilty – and taxpayers can determine if the cost of the trial is money worth spending, considering the low level criminal action.
In the meantime, Brennecke’s experience has been spurred him to work more closely with the American Indian Movement, local Miwok elders and Indigenous leaders throughout California to “follow up strong on my actions with a plan to have that awful statue removed from the California state capital as a start of reparations to Indigenous communities,” said Brennecke.
The petition calls for the removal of the statue of Columbus making an appeal to Queen Isabella. The artwork has been in the Capitol Rotunda since 1883, and according to the petition “reminding us of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, bloodshed, rape, pedophilia, enslavement of our Indigenous ancestors.” http://chng.it/zhhSG28v4z