On July 1st, a group of ‘illegal immigrants’ were flown from Texas’ overcrowded immigrant detention centers to California and transported in three buses for processing in the city of Murrieta. The immigrants, mostly women and children, were greeted by city residents waving American flags, chanting “go back home,” and blocking the road – forcing Border Patrol agents to change course and transport the group to a facility in San Diego.
The protests continued on July 4th when more buses were scheduled to arrive at Murrieta. Responding to Tuesday’s blockade, pro-immigration residents in Murrieta, along with supporters from the surrounding counties, held a counter protest to greet the incoming with sympathy and to pressure Murrieta authorities to not allow for another obstruction.
While the buses never arrived, the tension of the situation turned violent when five pro-immigration protesters were aggressively arrested by Murrieta police. This past week, the district attorney chose to press charges against the five. One of the charges they now face is as bizarre as it is serious: “Lynching,” as defined by the California penal code. Introduced in 1933 to prevent mobs from kidnapping suspects in custody and executing them, the archaic law only defines lynching as the “taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer.”
But the account of events given by Murrieta police–the same account that the media reported–and the charges the five now face are unsupported by the facts visible in video footage of the incident. In context, the incident parallels the sometimes deadly brutality exhibited by police in cities such as Ferguson, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco.
Aboard the buses that were denied entry to the Murrieta detention center were approximately 140 among thousands of immigrants that have left Central America in the past several months. Those that arrive in the United States often do so to escape the daily horrors brought about by the violent fallout of U.S. sponsored coups and a drug trade that has taken many cities hostage.
To reach the United States, the migrants take a perilous journey that spans more than two thousand miles of hunger and hurt, often only to be detained in inhumane conditions while awaiting some form of amnesty or, more often, deportation. Perhaps most alarming is the number of children, many unaccompanied, that have been showing up at the border in recent months – and at the morgue after being deported.
UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, has urged the United States government to acknowledge many of the migrants for what they are – refugees of an armed conflict that should be processed as asylum seekers. But such a solution is unpopular among the majority of US citizens who view illegal immigration as a threat to our culture and economy. As a result, immigrants attempting to escape the violence have yet to be recognized as refugees of a humanitarian crisis to which we have a responsibility.
Anti-immigration reaction, especially in Border States such as Texas, has been fierce. Protests against the influx of immigrants and what is seen as afailure of the Obama Administration to address the crisis appropriately is the most common display of the movement. The protests that took place in Murrieta are among what will presumably be many more throughout the country. And while the movement has tried to brand itself as a peaceful people’s movement, its ranks are often thickened by the growing hate groups and vigilante militias that anti-immigration sentiment has fueled.
Fear and Disdain
Anti-immigration protesters typically believe that they are protecting their community and country from dangerous foreigners. This belief justifies their exclusionary actions and masks the underlying prejudice – residents insist that they are not racist, yet their willingness to accept the variety of unsubstantiated claims that paint immigrants as diseased, criminal, economic burdens is precisely the result of xenophobia, prejudice, and entitled privilege.
On July 4th, the city was confronted with predominantly nonresident, pro-immigration protesters – many of whom were also people-of-color. We spoke with Jessica Rey and Pouyan Bokaei, who were arrested that day, along with Elizabeth Thornton, a UCLA doctoral student and head steward with UAW 2865 who witnessed the arrests. The three described the hostility directed not only toward refugees, but also people of color and gender non-conforming people in general.
Bokaei recalls that three people from among the anti-immigration crowd volunteered the information that they were members of the KKK. When he asked one of the three what he thought of the multiple gross violations of human rights that have been committed in the name of the United States, he said, “We should have more of those.”
Other comments by anti-immigration protesters expressed a similar desire for the opposing group to be controlled, usually in a violent manner. Video accounts show protesters repeatedly demanding that the police make an arrest – during which, Thornton recounts, “[people] were literally cheering the cops on and urging them to shoot us all.”
Janet Mathieson, one of the arrestees, described as outspoken and gender non-conforming had been the target of a particularly severe barrage of homophobic slurs and rape threats throughout the day. “I think something about her [appearance] really bothered the anti-immigration protesters,” explained Rey, “she was also the first to be assaulted by the police.”
Rey’s observation should not be taken as purely coincidental – the police showed an obvious lack of impartiality through selective enforcement. As the anti-immigration protesters converged to form a blockage, their efforts were unlikely to succeed without the abandonment of the buses by the police escort. When city police arrived to address the situation, no serious attempts were made to disperse the crowd and no arrests were made for obstruction of traffic or for the aggression toward the few immigration supporters.
Police ignored death threats made by anti-immigration protesters but responded swiftly at the first opportunity to make an arrest within the other group. This sort of selective enforcement is typical of the discrimination social and political groups that are designated as dangerous routinely experience. Given legitimacy by the surrounding social group that their actions were desirable and lawful responses to the situation, the police’s undue violent apprehensions were at service to their own.
Murrieta Police put out a press release with an account of what led to the arrests and charges. The report, which was quickly echoed by local news stations, states that the police went to investigate a reported assault that allegedly involved Mathieson. While arresting Mathieson, the report claims that Bokaei attempted to free her. It also claimed that “[Janet] Mathieson jumped on the officers back while the officer was arresting [Pouyan] Bokaei,” and that the three other arrestees also joined to help remove the protesters from custody.
The police’s account of the events leads conveniently to the charges that the five currently face. The misdemeanor battery charge is apparently for jumping on an officer’s back and the felony lynching charge given to all five for allegedly having attempted to free one another. But judging from the video footage that is available, it seems that the account given by the police is wholly unsubstantiated.
“The story is completely false,” said Rey. For one, footage shows that the reported assault which the police were to investigate did not involve Mathieson, but rather, it involved a separate pro-immigration member of the press that was assaulted by anti-immigration protestors. The supposed “back-jumping” onto an officer seems to be an invented or inverted version of events: in further footage of the arrest,Janet is seen motionless on top of Pouyan’s back, not the officer’s, as the two lie on the ground waiting to be handcuffed. Salvador Chavez, another one of those arrested, was not near the arrests when they occurred – he was standing at a distance, filming.
While every detail of the incident has yet to be clarified – something that is best left to be established in court – this rough sketch of the events is corroborated by footage: the police responded to a reported assault by attacking the pro-immigration protester that was pointed out by the anti-immigration crowd. Following this, a group of pro-immigration protesters (including those that would soon be arrested) attempt to walk away from the situation. Soon the police converge on the group with the assistance of a backup car and proceed to apprehended them violently.
The only apparent pretence for what led the police to make the arrests is that the group was walking away – an act that is in no way criminal unless the police have given orders to do otherwise or made it clear that you are under arrest. With regard to this, Thornton commented, “The police never indicated that they were making an arrest, but when you are body slammed to the ground, I guess you can assume you are under arrest.” As the footage shows, from that point there was nothing to suggest resistance.
In many ways, it is not surprising that a law intended to prosecute those who committed some of the most atrocious racially motivated crimes in American history is now being used against the very activists most likely to protest racism and discrimination today. The charge surfaced in January of 2012 when it was brought against Occupy protesters in Oakland and again in March 2012 when a UCLA graduate student was arrested during a Regents meeting in San Francisco.
To justify the violence that often accompanies arrests during protests, police departments in California have established charges that apply loosely and whose severity matches the severity of the police assault. The lynching charge is not the charge most commonly deployed in this manner; rather, people who are assaulted tend to be charged with assault on an officer (see for example, Pasadena).
That said, the lynching charge is highly strategic because it is vague enough to apply to the multitude of situations that are suggestive of cooperation between protesters during an arrest and severe enough that the threat can also have a deterrent effect (it carries a higher sentence than Penal Code 4550, the law that applies when someone frees a person from jail or prison). Initially isolated to Northern California, the tactic has spread to other police departments as an effective way of dealing with protesters during the Occupy movement.
The events at Murrieta may seem like a minor case of police brutality compared to those which have recently captured media attention, but in some ways it proves more instructive because those attacked have the opportunity to share their story and support it with evidence. The stark contrast between what is visible in the footage and what is told by most news accounts to date should come as no surprise.
Despite the Murrieta demonstrators’ frequent protestations that they are for law and order rather than against immigrants, the laws are in fact on the side of the refugees. Moreover, their own comments, their role in instigating the counter-protestors’ brutal arrests, and their audible glee in witnessing those arrests, jointly indicate that the violent exertion of control is more central to their agenda than any principled stance.