It’s incredibly easy for officers to detain those exercising their right to free speech, yet it’s often an empty (if cruel) gesture.
Following the murder of George Floyd, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in the streets of Los Angeles. People marched the day he was murdered on May 25, and actions continued well into the fall of 2020. At these protests, activists called for a number of demands, most notably to vote then District Attorney Jackie Lacey out of office (Lacey has since been replaced by George Gascón), and to either defund the Los Angeles Police Department or, as some advocated, to abolish the department entirely.
In response to the protests, LAPD came out in force, prepared to arrest anyone who stayed out past Mayor Eric Garcetti’s 6:00 PM curfew. Arrested protester and candidate for Los Angeles City Controller Madeline Cortez Le told me that a woman who wasn’t even participating in the protests was rounded up along with everyone else. “She was pissed. She was saying… how her business was shut down [be]cause of COVID, like she has no source of income… and I guess they rounded her up randomly as she was getting her cigarettes from her car. She got caught up in it.”
For some, the curfew was seen as a way for the city to silence free speech and curtail First Amendment rights. And indeed, the order came to an end after the ACLU Foundation of Southern California sued the city and county on behalf of BLM-LA, individual journalists, protesters, and others, claiming that the city was violating the Constitution.
In order to get a better understanding of what happened to activists after they were arrested during the spring BLM-LA protests, and in general what happens to protesters after they get arrested by LAPD, I spoke to Cortez Le, Charles Xu, and Jamie Penn. Cortez Le and Charles Xu were arrested on June 2, while Jamie Penn was arrested in December 2020 during the #BlockGarcetti actions.
In all three instances, the people I interviewed mentioned experiencing racism, bigotry, and transphobia while in the LAPD’s custody.
Elected Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council member and activist Penn was alone when she was arrested during the #BlockGarcetti actions. This fact certainly affected her experience, and made her more vulnerable to LAPD mistreatment.
“…I was given a really shitty experience, a really bad experience. They tried to take me… to a men’s facility. It would not have been a very fun experience for me.” Penn is a transgender woman and uses she/her pronouns. LAPD took her to Olympic Community Police Center before transporting her to the Metropolitan Detention Center. “[My] gender identity [was] mocked. [I told them], please, it’s she/her; if you could please just use my preferred pronouns.” In response, the officers reportedly responded jokingly, “it’s she/her, it’s real important.”
Xu also mentioned that police seemed to disregard gender identity when rounding up protesters into separate groups. “I noticed that there were at least a couple of trans women in our male group.” After separating the groups, officers lined up the protesters by male and female and had them get on buses sent to different areas prepared to hold a large number of arrestees. “I know that the women were taken, I think most of them were taken, all the way down to San Pedro.” Meanwhile, Xu claims his group was taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Mocking the gender identify of transgender protesters was, of course, not the only act of bigotry perpetrated by the LAPD. Cortez Le told me that she witnessed officers making derogatory comments towards a Black female arrestee, and that an officer told a family member of Cortez Le (who appears Asian) that she looked like she had COVID-19.
According to the LA Times, in total, more than 2,700 people were arrested in the period between Friday, May 29 and Tuesday, June 2. In the process of being arrested, Cortez Le said that LAPD officers immediately tried to gain access to protesters’ phones. “They were really trying to, like, take away people’s phones, and, like, delete stuff. And they were asking to open, to unlock your phone.” This happened to a family friend of hers. They also took Cortez Le’s phone and shut off the livestream she was recording as she was arrested.
In all three cases, arrestees were held together in tight corridors, whether it be on the transportation buses or at detention centers. Cortez Le said she saw only a few LAPD officers wearing masks. “They were definitely not wearing many masks… we had probably protested three days in a row, and, I think even the first couple of days, none of them were wearing masks.” She also recalls seeing maskless National Guard members as well. While inside the Metropolitan Detention Center, Penn was placed next to other detainees without masks. In contrast, once taken off the transportation buses, Xu and Cortez Le were held in massive outside areas, seated next to other protesters who were all wearing masks.
In regard to charges, Xu and Cortez were never officially “arrested,” but rather “detained.” This is likely because they were taken in for the minor offense of violating curfew, and because they were detained among such a large group of protesters. Since they were only held for a minor offense, they didn’t have the right to an attorney, or to have their Miranda Rights read to them. After being held for about three to four hours, both Xu and Cortez Le were sent home.
Months later, Xu and Cortez Le received letters from the city stating that the LA District Attorney declined to file charges in their cases. In the letters, they were also invited to sit down for community conversations. Xu said he was invited to sit down for a conversation with the police. Cortez Le said was invited to a conversation between LA City Attorney Mike Feuer and other arrested protesters. Both told me they were not interested in attending these meetings. In reference to the invitation Xu said, “…[it] is an offer that I most certainly have no intention of taking up…”
Penn, however, was initially charged with the serious offense of “lynching,” which in this case means, “the crime of removing someone from the lawful custody of a peace officer by means of a riot.” For more information on this offense, check out California Penal Code 405a. Disturbingly, while in custody, no one read Penn her Miranda Rights, or granted the right to call a lawyer. She was also kept in solitary confinement, essentially, held within an all-but-shut-down area of the detention center.
Months later, Penn is living in limbo because the District Attorney of Los Angeles has declined to file charges in her case. Although this means she has not been officially charged with a crime, it does mean that her arrest on December 6 is on her record. According to her, she is not the only activist living in this kind of purgatory. She says she knows of others that have been told that their charges will not be filed, and that the DA has refused to file in their cases.
When asked why District Attorneys would refuse to file charges in these types of cases, a public defender explained to me that, “the prosecuting agencies don’t want to deal with an 18-defendant complaint with a single misdemeanor count and a police report that barely has any details, or was just copied and pasted from another police report. That sort of situation, actually having to try one of those cases, is a logistical nightmare.”
Even though it is unlikely that charges against Penn will ever be filed, she wonders what will happen to her if she is arrested at another action, putting two arrests on her record. She says more needs to be done — legally, legislatively, and in the court of public opinion — to protect protesters exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and the right to assemble.
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