When I was in grad school at University of Chicago, my brilliant friend Summer used to always talk about writing a paper on the ways in which California is represented in black literature.
Her thesis was something along the lines that race plays out more uniquely in California than it does in the northern and southern states traditionally depicted in black literature because slavery didn’t affect its development like it did that of those northern (by way of the Great Migration) and southern–and even many eastern and Midwestern–states.
Well . . .
What may be true of the California represented in black literature is not true of the California represented in the daily news right now.
In the last month, two controversial sentencings in California have made it tragically clear that as “progressive” or “different” as the west coast supposedly is–politically or culturally–it really isn’t.
First, in Pasadena, Black Lives Matter organizer Jasmine Richards a/k/a Jasmine Abdullah has been sentenced to four years for felony lynching or what the police term as “attempting to ‘de-arrest'” a fellow protester at a march in August 2015.
Those familiar with the historical definition of the term “lynching” are probably extremely puzzled by Abdullah’s conviction because no one wrested from police custody, taken to a clandestine spot, and hung to death by a white vigilante mob for committing some “crime” the mob defined for itself.
However, “lynching” as defined by California law (Penal Code 405a) means the “taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer.”
(Penal Code 405b stipulates that anyone convicted of lynching will serve two to four years.)
So, if a group of protesters are beset upon by the police, one of the protesters is grabbed up by an officer, and one of the other protesters, or a couple of the other protesters, try to free their fellow protester, the protesters can be arrested for “felony lynching.”
In fact, the protester grabbed up by the police can also be arrested if he or she appealed to the other protesters to help him or her get free of the officer.
This actually happened in a 1999 case in San Francisco, in which police cuffed a juvenile on a warrant for auto theft, and he appealed to a crowd of onlookers to help free him.
The crowd of several hundred people rushed the officers, and the juvenile male was able to break free of them. He fled that day, but, when he was later caught, he was arrested and charged with lynching under Penal Code 405a and 405b.
If a person even just tries to free someone from police custody in California, if he or she doesn’t succeed, that person can be arrested and charged with “attempted lynching” under Penal Code 405a and 405b.
So this shamefully ahistorical law decontextualizes the term “lynching,” couches the term in the adjudication of rioting rather than hate killing (Penal Code 404 and 405 state that “participation in a riot” is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail, and Penal Code 404.6 states that “incitement to riot” is also a misdemeanor by one year maximum in jail), and makes it into a convenient weapon to use against activists and protesters of all colors and kinds.
The California “lynching” law allows police to violate the Constitutional rights of California citizens by exercising their discretion (labeling a protest a “riot”) and authority in discriminatory, but legal, ways; it allows the California courts to intimidate people that would participate in protests by passing down strict, undeserved sentences like the one passed down in Jasmine Abdullah’s case; and it allows both the police and courts to persecute–if they choose to–black, Hispanic/Latino, Muslim, LGBTQIA+, and other “Other” organizers and protesters.
It is a highly functional, malleable tool of institutional racism, which is the tale as old as time of American culture.
And so, too, is Jasmine Abdullah’s sentencing, under the law.
It reveals the old-school values undergirding California’s new age act, in the same way as the Rodney King and Oscar Grant verdicts.
The second sentencing that reveals that racism is alive and thriving in California is that of Brock Turner.
Brock Turner was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault, for which he could’ve received 14 years in prison, but he was sentenced to six months in county jail and three years’ probation, even though prosecutors recommended that he get six years.
I won’t detail what Turner did to his victim, but I will quote his victim’s impact statement on how the crime devastated her:
My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition. I became closed off, angry, self-deprecating, tired, irritable, empty. The isolation at times was unbearable. You cannot give me back the life I had before that night either. While you worry about your shattered reputation, I refrigerated spoons every night so when I woke up, and my eyes were puffy from crying, I would hold the spoons to my eyes to lessen the swelling so that I could see. I showed up an hour late to work every morning, excused myself to cry in the stairwells, I can tell you all the best places in that building to cry where no one can hear you, the pain became so bad that I had to tell my boss I was leaving, I needed time because continuing day to day was not possible. I used my savings to go as far away as I could possibly be.
I can’t sleep alone at night without having a light on, like a five year old, because I have nightmares of being touched where I cannot wake up, I did this thing where I waited until the sun came up and I felt safe enough to sleep. For three months, I went to bed at six o’clock in the morning.
I used to pride myself on my independence, now I am afraid to go on walks in the evening, to attend social events with drinking among friends where I should be comfortable being. I have become a little barnacle always needing to be at someone’s side, to have my boyfriend standing next to me, sleeping beside me, protecting me. It is embarrassing how feeble I feel, how timidly I move through life, always guarded, ready to defend myself, ready to be angry.
You have no idea how hard I have worked to rebuild parts of me that are still weak. It took me eight months to even talk about what happened. I could no longer connect with friends, with everyone around me. I would scream at my boyfriend, my own family whenever they brought this up. You never let me forget what happened to me. At the of end of the hearing, the trial, I was too tired to speak. I would leave drained, silent. I would go home turn off my phone and for days I would not speak. You bought me a ticket to a planet where I lived by myself. Every time a new article come out, I lived with the paranoia that my entire hometown would find out and know me as the girl who got assaulted. I didn’t want anyone’s pity and am still learning to accept victim as part of my identity. You made my own hometown an uncomfortable place to be.
Someday, you can pay me back for my ambulance ride and therapy. But you cannot give me back my sleepless nights. The way I have broken down sobbing uncontrollably if I’m watching a movie and a woman is harmed, to say it lightly, this experience has expanded my empathy for other victims. I have lost weight from stress, when people would comment I told them I’ve been running a lot lately. There are times I did not want to be touched. I have to relearn that I am not fragile, I am capable, I am wholesome, not just livid and weak.
Even though she fought through all of her pain to stand in court and read a 12-page document addressed directly to Turner at his sentencing, her suffering is obviously not what the judge took most meaningfully into account when he sentenced Turner.
The judge, Aaron Persky, instead prioritized Turner, who he determined would be “severe[ly] impact[ed]” by serving a long sentence and somehow predicted would not be a danger in the future, despite being found guilty of three counts of sexual assault (TRIGGER WARNING: The charges were assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object.)
This because Turner is a white man–a student at prestigious Stanford University–a scholarship recipient–a decorated swimmer–clearly.
Persky himself is a white man, Stanford alumnus, and 13-year vet of the bench. He obviously believed he could get away with privileging Turner over his victim, which he must have done out of empathy–out of identification with Turner–because he couldn’t have done it out of some degree of doubt.
(The verdict foreclosed any doubt that he as a judge was obligated to acknowledge or consider.)
Because Turner had been drinking the night he committed the heinous crime, and the victim was unconscious, there arose a terrible opportunity in the court proceedings for his counsel, Turner and his witnesses, and Persky to revise the truth of what happened and mitigate Turner’s culpability.
Persky took this opportunity–passing down a sentence that minimized Turner’s crime–because even though statistics show that white males make up the largest percentage of convicted rapists in the US, Persky made some differentiation–likely based on class assumptions–between Turner and the “typical” rapist.
Persky gave Turner the benefit of the doubt based on the fact that he is affluent–educated and accomplished–that Turner could be his son or maybe even could’ve been Persky a couple of decades ago.
Persky even admits that he took Turner’s age and lack of criminal background into account when he passed down Turner’s sentence, but these factors alone can’t account for his leniency in the face of 36 votes of guilty (three counts x 12 jurors each). Reason dictates there had to have been a more compelling factor.
Psychology, sociology, history, and anecdotal evidence suggest that Persky gave Turner a lenient sentence because of the cross-race effect–the influence it has on social cognition (it spurs people to think of those in an outgroup in terms of categories and those in their ingroup in individual terms).
It was Persky’s job to attempt to be as impartial as possible–to sentence Turner according to the verdict, recommendation of the prosecutor, impact on the victim, and facts of the case. But he failed.
It’s impossible not to wonder whether he would’ve failed in the same way if Turner had not been white and so relatable to Persky.
It’s inadvisable, too, for legislators, judicial officials, law enforcers, residents, and visitors of California to ignore what has happened to Jasmine Abdullah and Brock Turner’s victim because of the racism running through the state’s political system and legal culture.
The hippie movement might have originated in California, but, 50 years later, the racist establishment wields significant power over the state.
Cali isn’t the “cool” place it is so often imagined to be.
Medical marijuana may be legal there, but so, apparently, is bigoted abuse of power.
It’s outrageous. It’s not surprising in this iteration of the American landscape, but it’s still disgusting.
It makes me wonder what the people of California can do to improve the system whose darkness is sidelined by the state’s sunny image.
It makes me wonder how terribly certain laws can be twisted to serve the agendas of racists in a segregated state like my own (Ohio).