In the two days before Christmas, Black Lives Matter activists staged protests nationwide. Hundreds swarmed the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Protestors in Chicago hit the area's so-called "Magnificent Mile" shopping district. And in Los Angeles, a dozen or so activists shut down our most sacred of cows: the 405 freeway.
Activists were arrested in Chicago, Minneapolis and elsewhere, but according to Melina Abdullah, L.A.'s protestors were dealt with particularly harshly. Nine were arrested by CHP officers, including Abdullah, who was held by L.A. County jailers in a "segregated unit," essentially in isolation, for nearly three days, including Christmas Eve. Black Lives Matter posted her bail on Christmas Day.
"I had no cellmate," says Abdullah, one of the more prominent Black Lives Matter Los Angeles organizers. "I wasn’t given paper, a pencil, nothing. Just a blanket and a pad. I wasn’t able to make a phone call for 24 hours."
A single mother, she'd made arrangements for her children to be taken care of, but they never expected her to be out of touch for 24 hours.
According to Nana Gyamfi, the attorney for Black Lives Matter L.A., the nine activists were given felony "holding charges," and taken to a county jail in Inglewood. "There’s a lot of pieces about their confinement that were crazy," Gyamfi says. "Everyone was in solitary confinement. The men were handcuffed and leg-shackled, with a waist chain when they were moved."
While shutting down a freeway is not a felony, vandalism of a freeway is. The activists were using chalk spray-paint on the 405, writing the names of black men and women who LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff's officers killed in 2015.
The activists have not yet been formally charged, and all were bailed out. But bail was set rather high — $50,000, in some cases.
Gyamfi describes the 405 protest as "really a traffic-ticket case. And really, as far as I’m concerned, the purpose [of the jailings] is to intimidate. The purpose is to bully."
If there's one thing the CHP can't stand, it's when humans walk on a freeway. Look no further than Marlene Pinnock, a mentally ill homeless woman who stepped onto the 10 freeway in 2014. A CHP officer was videotaped pinning Pinnock to the ground and repeatedly punching her in the face. Pinnock sued, and CHP settled for $1.5 million.
The CHP officer resigned as part of the settlement but was not prosecuted.
"Part of the issue is that the CHP is not used to having to deal with human beings on the freeway," Gyamfi says. "They lose their mind. They just do not have training for that type of situation. So their knee-jerk response is to be really punitive."
The CHP's actions, Gyamfi says, taken together with other prosecutions of Black Lives Matter activists, amount to nothing short of "criminalizing civil disobedience."
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Says Gyamfi: "In two weeks, everyone’s going to be talking about how much they honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s like they forgot what King was doing. When it’s done in the Arab part of the world, we celebrate it, we call it the Arab Spring.
"The only people that cannot do that are black people in America."
The days of action that unfolded around the nation were dubbed "Black Xmas." Here's a snippet of the Black Lives Matter press release:
Black Xmas is here and there will be no business as usual until we get accountability for our dead, and justice for the living. Instead of buying gifts to fuel this system, Black Xmas is a day of action to reject the degradation of Black families and communities by police, politicians, and predatory companies, and declare our inherent worth. We will disrupt business as usual until city, state, and federal budgets stop funding Black death and start funding Black futures.