By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – The Sacramento County District Attorney Office blinked first Thursday, dismissing all charges almost literally on the day of the trial of a pair of Poor People’s Campaign activists who insisted on going to trial this week for draping banners on the face of a Christopher Columbus statue at the State Capitol.
The Sacramento Superior Court jury trial was in motion, only awaiting a courtroom assignment this week or early next week until the DA – who has been hit with heavy criticism for refusing to charge Sacramento police officers who killed unarmed Stephon Clark but apparently was willing to try two non-violent activists for touching a statue – blinked Thursday.
It had promised to be a rare political trial, pitting the power of the state against two poor people advocates, who were expected to draw scores of other activists from throughout the state to the courtroom trial.
But it wasn’t to be – both defendant activists were disappointed, and they used the moment Thursday when they got the news of the dismissal to criticize “the legal system,” Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert and law enforcement.
“As a born and raised Californian living on stolen Indigenous land, I’m disgusted at the legal system, the Sacramento District Attorney and California Highway Patrol, who held absurd misdemeanor charges over my head for a year, only to have those charges dismissed at the last minute when we made a stand and pushed to bring statewide and national attention to this issue,” said Josh Brennecke.
He and Rene Castle were set to go to trial for an act of civil disobedience on June 4, 2018.
“But this isn’t about me. In fact, I’m sad the charges and case got dismissed. I will put my body and name on the line again to make sure the voices of Indigenous People and communities of color are heard in a white supremacy based government,” added Brennecke,
Castle added: “I am grateful that these frivolous charges were dropped. Josh was arrested for climbing on and placing an indigenous flag on the statue of the notorious mass murderer and founder of the slave trade, Christopher Columbus, located in the California State Capitol Building rotunda. A short time later, I was arrested for placing a banner reading ‘Honor the Treaties’ on the same statue.
“I can only speculate as to why (DA Schubert) chose to use tax dollars to prosecute protestors engaged in free speech or why she has now chosen to drop those charges after a year. (But) District Attorneys are beholden to law enforcement unions…this prosecution was simply a nod of support to law enforcement unions who contributed significantly to Schubert’s election campaign, an example of the effects of money on our judicial system and our democracy,” said Castle.
Brennecke, represented pro bono by National Lawyers Guild attorney Michael Hansen, and Castle, represented by Maegan Gannon of the Sacramento Public Defender’s Office, are part of the national Poor People’s Campaign, which seeks to finish Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, and, like MLK Jr. and others in the 60s civil rights movement, are willing to be arrested.
The PPC held nonviolent protests all over the nation a year ago, including the Capitol in Sacramento to promote what it called “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 last June, all non-violent and peaceful. Only Brennecke and Castle had charges filed and had to be prepared for trial – until Thursday.
Brennecke is challenging the state of California over the Rotunda statue, entitled “Columbus’ Last Appeal to Queen Isabella,” that has occupied the first floor Capitol Rotunda since 1883, about 136 years.
“Gov. Newsom, take a stand. Please take down that statue, replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day and bring Indigenous Peoples and Communities of Color to leadership positions. You claim to be a progressive for the people. How can you stand to see a statue glorifying the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, people of color and people you claim to represent and fight for?
“We will not stand for this and we are not done fighting. The taking down of this statue is a small step in bettering communications between Indigenous Communities and US Government. But this doesn’t stop with just the removal of symbols of hatred and genocide. It stops when we start to see First Nations people and communities of color at the decision-making table dealing with issues that impact their communities. It starts with trust,” said Brennecke.
Brennecke also had questions over the Clark murder by Sacramento police.
“Where was the pressure for a trial with Stephon Clark? Why do two cops get to walk away no strings attached after murdering unarmed Stephon Clark in his own backyard and see no trial? But when I climb up on a statue and cover it with a flag that represents Indigenous Resilience it becomes a big deal. Where’s the justice in that?” he said.
Like Brennecke, Castle said he’s also mobilizing around the controversial Rotunda statue.
“The Italian marble statue in the rotunda is simultaneously a piece of beautiful art and a commemoration of the launching of what became horrific atrocities. Having this statue in such a central, honored location within our state capital is nothing less than an endorsement of enslavement and genocide by the great State of California.
“Because of District Attorney Schubert, Josh and I are now associated with this statue. We intend to use this to support the Poor People’s Campaign and indigenous people by lobbying to not only remove the statue but for California to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Symbols of slavery and colonialism are coming down across our country. California can do this, too,” said Castle.
He quoted from Columbus’ own journal:
“They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
“This is where America needs to go, and this is what America needs to do. I believe that many, maybe even most, Americans do want to move inclusively and honestly into the future. We have become wise to how those in power have divided us and turned us on each other to preserve systems of injustice, immorality, and power,” Castle added, noting that the Poor People’s Campaign “won’t be deterred by the threat of arrest and jail.
“The Poor People’s Campaign will move forward, and I will be a part of it because this is where America needs to go and this is what America needs to do. I believe that many, maybe even most, Americans do want to move inclusively and honestly into the future. We have become wise to how those in power have divided us and turned us on each other to preserve systems of injustice, immorality, and power. The Poor People’s Campaign seeks nothing less than to unite all those seeking justice into a single, powerful, and unstoppable force,” Castle said.
Brennecke explained why he and Brennecke risked arrest.
“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 faced up to six months in jail if convicted. They were charged with failure to obey the directions of a peace officer.
Both former defendants are now working to remove the statue, promoting a petition that calls for the removal of the statue of Columbus making an appeal to Queen Isabella. The artwork, the petition states, is a reminder of “imperialism, colonialism, genocide, bloodshed, rape, pedophilia, enslavement of our Indigenous ancestors.”