During the height of the Ferguson Rebellion in late summer 2014, youth organizer, Joshua Williams quickly rose to the call of duty. In the aftermath of Officer Darren Wilson’s brutal murder of unarmed Black teenager, Mike Brown, 19-year-old Josh Williams, stepped forward in the most dedicated and courageous way possible – on the front lines.
At protests, Williams stood his ground against armed police, national guardsmen, tanks and teargas, encouraging others to do the same. In doing so, Josh not only earned the respect and admiration of his peers, he began to garner favor with longtime veteran leaders such as Cornel West and Al Sharpton. Williams became a darling of the national media, from USA Today to the New York Times. Everyone loved Josh. His humor. His courage. His charisma.
Unfortunately, just a few months after Mike Brown’s dead body dangled in the street for four hours, another Black teenager, Antonio Martin, was shot by the police in Berkeley – a small town just outside of Ferguson. In a righteous rage, youth took to the streets in rebellion. In the process, Williams was caught on camera lighting a fire at the convenience store where Martin was shot and killed. In December 2014, Josh Williams was arrested by the St. Louis County police, and a year later plead guilty to first degree arson and second degree burglary.
Were Josh’s actions of “damaging property” illegal? Yes, of course. But so was the murder of innocent human lives. Did Darren Wilson serve time in jail? No, he did not. Did George Zimmerman serve time for murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin? No, not at all! Josh Williams, however, was sentenced to eight years in the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Mo. Neither Wilson nor Zimmerman ever served one day in prison.
Legal Repression, Trumped-up Charges
Another recent case of overt targeting of activists by the state is the case of 28-year-old Jasmine Richards (also known as Jasmine Abdullah). Founder of the Black Lives Matter Pasadena Chapter, Richards became the first Black person in the United States convicted of “felony lynching.” Yes, lynching! She was hit with this charge for attempting to prevent the arrest of a Black woman accused of not paying her bill at a local restaurant, back in August 2015.
During the incident, Jasmine and others were nearby at a local park rally against violence in the Black community. As commotion spilled over into the street, Jasmine and nearby protesters came to serve as witnesses, demanding justice. At the time, only the suspect accused of not paying her bill was formally arrested. Three days later, however, for her valiant pursuit of justice, Jasmine was charged with delaying and obstructing officers, inciting a riot and felony lynching. On June 1, 2016, Jasmine Richards was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 3 years of probation time.
In the state of California, lynching implies “the taking by means of a riot of another person from the lawful custody of a peace officer.” The erroneous charges against Jasmine backfired, however, when the general public finally received word of such a ridiculous interpretation, and legal application. Public outcry was heard worldwide. And though Richards was released on bail just a few days ago on June 18, an old phenomenon has become quite clear.
Learning Lessons from Past Movements
What we’re seeing in regards to targeting activists and organizers of the Black Lives Matter Movement is nothing new – no different than the targeting of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Assata Shakur and Leonard Peltier. What we’re seeing is the same strategy that COINTELPRO used against the Black Panther Party (BPP), Black Liberation Army (BLA) and American Indian Movement (AIM).
What we have to do now is call this out, and critique such developments through a contemporary context. The intent of such repression is to halt the movement, to halt the surge and organization of the poor and oppressed, to “disrupt, discredit and destroy.”
For those who may not be familiar, “the state” is the police and county sheriffs – ICE , U.S. Border Patrol, the FBI and CIA – your local probation and correctional officers – even the judges and state prosecutors. Collectively, the state apparatus will do anything to protect the elite. Such statement is unfortunately true because, it is indeed, their job. And if the state cannot stop you permanently, they’ll tie up your time, energy and resources in the jails and court system. And they’ll use the media to demonize you in the process.
As current activists, radical scholars and revolutionaries, we have to learn from these lessons and pass them on. As the Movement for Black Lives continues to grow, mature and push forward, it would behoove us to only expect that there will also be other activists targeted. It could be me. It could be you. It could be any one of us: the organizer, the foot soldier, the professor.
We know what the state wants – to prevent the poor and disenfranchised from rising and seizing power. Such position has always been the state’s role. What is new, is that a new generation must be armed with the proper information to protect themselves. Those on the front line must be defended, by us, the people, the community, at all cost, by any means necessary.
As our great field general, Assata Shakur teaches us, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”