Protest Leaders Like Rosa Clemente Are Not Criminals

White supremacy is built upon narratives that anything that uplifts people of color is dangerous and wrong

Rosa Clemente is a journalist, activist, and political figure who has been on the front lines of social justice for more than 15 years. She has written and spoken extensively on racial identity for Afro-Latinx* people, organized campaigns to motivate people to vote and engage in political movements, and is recognized as a leading voice on issues concerning black and latinx people. Her 2008 run for vice president alongside presidential candidate Rep. Cynthia McKinney on the Green Party was the first all-women-of-color ticket in U.S. history.

This is not the résumé of someone who is a threat to the public and needs to be arrested and prosecuted for the good of the people. Yet that is what happened on November 26, 2014, when Clemente, along with six other demonstrators, was arrested in Los Angeles for blocking a freeway off-ramp and refusing the orders of a police officer.

They were there to protest the lack of indictment of Darren Wilson for the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The protesters were not convicted of any of the charges in a trial that concluded on March 25. Nevertheless, their arrest and trial were yet another attempt to undermine the work of BLM organizers by portraying civil disobedience as a criminal act.

Clemente is not naive and has long understood the potential consequences of disrupting a system built upon the same oppression she and her comrades are working to end. Clemente recently told Uprising Radio that she believes the prosecution of BLM activists is meant to “send a message to the broader Black Lives Matter movement in the country that any time we go out there and protest in what is an American tradition of civil disobedience, the state is going to do anything and everything to stop that.”

This disdain for BLM seems to be a common thread, particularly in the Los Angeles justice system. The city has arrested more BLM protesters, and prosecuted them more often, than any other city where BLM protests have occurred, even though the protests in L.A. are among the most well organized and peaceful in the country. Supportive observers and activists say that Los Angeles's devoting so much effort to prosecuting these demonstrators, while being a city with one of the highest rates of police-involved killings in the country, shows there is more interest in quelling civil disobedience than reforming a deadly system of policing.

This trial is the second of six criminal proceedings recently on the docket in L.A. involving people from the BLM movement. The first trial ended March 1, with Evan Bunch and Luz Maria Flores convicted on charges of resisting arrest and battery of police officers after the two had interrupted a private meeting to speak to L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti. A guilty verdict came down in spite of conflicting reports about the incident and at least one eyewitness stating that they didn’t see Flores or Bunch lay a hand on any officer. Back in 2015, there was the separate case of California v. Jasmyne Cannick, in which Cannick, a reporter, was charged with resisting arrest while covering the November 2014 protests in L.A. (a.k.a. doing her job). The case was dismissed due to the LAPD failing to produce evidence showing Cannick committing a crime.

These arrests, trials, and convictions are the defense mechanism of injustice, a way for a corrupt system to try to slow down those who would bring about its end. L.A.’s people, energy, and resources are being redirected to deal with legal fees, trials, and campaigning for the freedom of their leaders. And for what? For organizing against the injustice of racism and classism.

The idea that those who work against systemic racism are either a problem or a threat to society is essential to a culture of white supremacy, which is more than people with swastika tattoos and pointy white hoods; it’s a system that runs through much of society, built upon narratives that anything that uplifts people of color is dangerous and wrong.

A white supremacist narrative requires deeming people like Clemente and her fellow protesters Jas Wade, Povi-Tamu Bryant, Damon Turner, Asiyahola Sankara, Haewon Asfan, and Frederisha Dixon criminals, rather than the leaders they are. Prejudice denies that these people are first and foremost poets, academics, and mentors. It ignores that Clemente, the most well known among them, is a major force in the movement for racial justice. Instead, these men and women are reduced to a moment of protest and the subsequent arrest and trial, as if the charges brought against them define who they are.

White supremacy drives the impulse to call protesters “thugs” or dismiss the work these leaders do for their communities. Internalized, systemic prejudice leads people to devalue the incredible work of those who happen to get arrested during protests — people like Clemente, whom folks in the movement for black lives see as an inspiration.

Clemente has been unwavering in her dedication to the fight for justice for all people. She has given numerous presentations on the subject of race and inequality, written pieces for major media outlets, and puts herself on the front lines for the causes she believes in. She and her comrades are role models for their leadership and their willingness to put their own bodies on the line, in a call for justice for the black bodies the state treats as property to be reclaimed with handcuffs and bullets.

People like Clemente serve as a source of information, strategy, and guidance for those organizing against injustice everywhere. They give us hope that someone is taking a stand for the people. These revolutionaries must be defined by the work they do educating, organizing, and taking action for what they believe in — not by the ways the oppressive system they are fighting tries to hold them back.

*Afro-Latinx is a gender-neutral descriptor for people who are of African and Latin American heritage. The “x” replaces the masculine suffix “o” in Latino to make the term inclusive of all gender identities.

CORRECTION (4/4/16, 10:12 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Jasmyne Cannick as a supporter of the BLM movement, and additionally stated that she drew on movement resources for her defense. Cannick attended the protest as a journalist and paid for her own legal counsel. We regret the error.

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