Dear Mr. President, What will you do to honor human rights defenders facing persecution in the US?
President Barack Obama released a statement today – Human Rights Day – which reaffirmed the United State’s fundamental belief that all people have the right to "speak openly, to organize peacefully. . . and to particulate fully. . . with confidence in the rule of law." We cannot help but wonder whether the President’s claim that the US will always "stand with those who seek to exercise their universal rights, wherever they live," includes the human rights activists in our own country who speak out on behalf of our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable.
The Skid Row community of downtown Los Angeles is home to 15,000 extremely low-income residents of whom one third are homeless. Since 2006, the City of LA’s primary response to this housing rights crisis has been intensified policing through the so-called Safer Cities Initiative. In fact, the City is spending over $6 million per year solely on the salaries of 50 additional LA Police Department (LAPD) officers assigned to the 50-square block core of the Skid Row community, while spending only $5.7 million for emergency housing, services, and permanent housing in the remaining 464 square miles of the City. A recent survey of 200 Skid Row residents, completed by the LA Community Action Network (LA CAN) demonstrates the devastating impact of the intensified policing. Among homeless individuals surveyed, over 80 percent report an arrest and nearly 90 percent report detainment in the last year. Among all survey respondents, almost 80 percent report that they do not feel safe from police violence.
As the severity of the human rights crisis has intensified in Skid Row, many human rights defenders have emerged, including Mr. Steve Richardson. LA CAN’s CommunityWatch teams, which document human rights violations, and specifically Mr. Richardson, are well-known to City officials and the LAPD for releasing crucial video evidence of human rights violations by the LAPD, which has led to disciplinary proceedings and civil rights lawsuits against the LAPD. There is blatant animosity expressed toward LA CAN by LAPD officers in public meetings and in other arenas. Mr. Richardson is the LA CAN member most targeted in degrading or retaliatory comments by LAPD officers.
In May, Mr. Richardson was part of a group of more than 300 housing rights defenders present in the LA City Council Chambers. The City Council was due to vote on a rent freeze for rent-stabilized tenants facing a minimum 3 percent rent increase during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. When the Council effectively killed the rent freeze, low-income residents and allies began peacefully chanting their opposition. The Council responded by deploying dozens of police officers into Council Chambers to forcibly remove seniors, mothers with children, people with disabilities, and others exercising their rights to participate in public processes. Mr. Richardson and two other LA CAN members were arrested. Mr. Richardson was charged with a felony, which meant that, because of past nonviolen offenses for which he already served time, he would now face 25 years to life. The charges were eventually dropped.
In August, Mr. Richardson was again in front of the Council, providing testimony about his LA City Commendation Award for completing a violence prevention program – designed to give residents, social organizations, and law enforcement the tools necessary to reduce violence – and talked about how he had turned his life around since serving time for past offenses. He then returned the award to the Council, stating that it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on since the City had acted so violently against him and hundreds of others in May. Roughly one week later, Mr. Richardson received a letter stating the City Attorney had filed misdemeanor charges against him due to the original allegations and arrest in May.
This time Mr. Richardson faces up to 3 years incarceration on the charges. Despite the White House’s statements today that the federal government honors those who risk persecution in the service of [the Universal Declaration of Human Right’s] brave ideals – the reality is that the continued use of the criminal justice system to target and retaliate against human rights defenders like Mr. Richardson sends a clear and contradictory message to all other existing and potential human rights defenders in the US.
Mr. Richardson’s case is not an anomaly, but one example of the almost constant threat of retaliation faced by those speaking out in defense of human rights in the US. During the past month, more than 45 human rights defenders working on housing rights, immigrant rights workers’ rights, and transportation rights in LA have faced criminal charges. The City Attorney has released numerous press releases to highlight his attempts to crack down on "protesters."