Defend Our Human Rights Defenders


In the course of a single week in late February, three human rights activists in three cities across the country were in court facing criminal offences arising from their human rights work. The NESRI housing team attended all three court hearings.

In New York, Michael Premo, a housing rights activist documenting the destruction of communities (currently, as a result of Hurricane Sandy), was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. In Chicago, Toussaint Losier, a Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign activist, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and a Harvard graduate, was arrested (as he was expecting the birth of his first child), and charged with trespass and resisting arrest. And in Los Angeles, 61-year-old Deborah Burton, a gentle, (mostly) softly spoken (more about that later) grandmother, who has testified in front of United Nations Human Rights Council members, was charged with two counts of “assault likely to produce great bodily injury” and one charge of a “willful use of force and violence that inflicts serious bodily injury.” The original letter Deborah received cited ‘assault with a deadly weapon’ as the charge.

Deborah, collard greens and the Vagina Monologues

It’s worth reflecting on what any of these charges conjures up. I was struggling with the image of Deborah yielding something that was going to produce “great bodily injury”, never mind of her intending to do so or wielding a “deadly weapon”. It’s not surprising therefore, that the “means of force” or “deadly weapon” in question turned out to be toy airhorn that can be purchased at any party store, and the “assault” Deborah was accused of is sounding the toy airhorn at a protest. So, no machete then? As is frequently the case in these circumstances, the charges are ridiculous – yet at the same time extremely serious. Deborah’s trial is due to be held in April 2013 and the possible outcomes include Deborah having to serve a significant period of time in jail if found guilty.

Deborah works full time at Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) as an organizer on housing rights, an issue that is deeply personal to her. “I pay $800 a month in rent. In public housing, it’s $100 less. I could do a lot with those $100. I could have a yard to grow collard and mustard greens,” she told me. We then discussed collard green recipes and how Deborah was “real country, and happy to be it!” She added: “I’m proud of my roots!” She was also proud of her organizing. Although too young to engage in the civil rights work of the 1960s and 1970s, she’s glad to be making a contribution now, particularly, given that “our civil and human rights are constantly violated”. “There’s a disconnect between government and communities,” she said. ”They say they are here for the people, but it’s obvious that they are not here for the people. They are there – in power – for other reasons. Simple rights such as protesting have been criminalized.” She also told me about how unsettling she found public speaking, and about her performance at last year’s Vagina Monologues fundraiser with the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition. Deborah explained: “I got it [the reading] two days before the event. And I thought, this was a new word for me. I didn’t use it at all! So I had to get into a new space and come outside of my comfort zone, and perform this word to the audience. My co-worker gave me some advice. He said pretend you are just joking around with your co-workers. So I said, “okay, I can do that!” It came off really well. I got the attention of the audience. I shocked them.” 


Unfathomable charges

The fact that Deborah, Touissant, and Michael were charged with any criminal offense at all is the most troubling part of these cases. These charges, and a multitude of others like them, form a pattern of targeting human rights activists and community organizers with absurd and trumped up indictments, in order to deter them from continuing with their vital human rights work. In Los Angeles, other members of LA CAN, such as Steve “General Dogon” Richardson, who heads up the ”Cop Watch” program in Downtown LA, have been routinely targeted with criminal charges in an apparent effort to stymie the organization’s efforts to secure for LA’s most vulnerable citizens the civil rights many of us take for granted (see LA CAN/NESRI urgent appeal to highest international authority on human rights defenders for further information on  General Dogon’s case).

Echoes of McCarthy

At Deborah’s court hearing, where NESRI was providing ”court support” (part bearing witness, part solidarity, and part anything else that might be needed), we were sitting through  the usual array of prosecution requests, when suddenly we heard the prosecutor ask for disclosure of lists of individuals who had attended the demonstration Deborah was at when she was arrested, and lists of activists who had attended meetings at LA CAN. I was waiting for the judge to admonish the prosecutor and offer reminders that the McCarthy era was over and the constitution’s guaranteeing of freedom of assembly and association were both still intact – but no such luck.  The judge did,  at the behest of the defense, limit the discovery request to only written or documented verbal statements that Deborah made about the specific protest in question – much to the frustration of the prosecutor.   Since this is an ongoing case, we won’t say much more about this now – it is, however, unconscionable and deeply concerning, that any part of government should be seeking to obtain ‘lists’ of activists who attend meetings – particularly when these meetings would have had nothing to do with the alleged act that is being prosecuted. This amounts to an attempt at intimidation – pure and simple. The idea of any state body or agent in the United States (such as the City Attorney) feeling at liberty to seek to amass information about the legal activities of citizens and residents is both utterly chilling, and also, sadly, entirely predictable.

Human needs are human rights

Interestingly, all of these activists were engaged in human rights work connected to meeting our basic economic and social needs – for example, the needs of homeless residents on Skid Row, or the needs of South Side Chicago residents for adequate trauma care. What kind of political work someone engages in does not  make a difference to their constitutional rights to do so. However, the circumstances we find ourselves in – 47.8 million people on food stamps, and many more not meeting their basic food needs; 23 million unemployed or underemployed; and millions more struggling to fulfill their other basic human needs such as access to healthcare, while at the same time the nation’s wealth ossifies in the hands of a tiny minority – should lead us to ask in whose interests are these prosecutions being advanced. They certainly do not seem to serve the public interest. I see  Deborah, Michael, and Toussaint as heroes and heroines. Like the many others whose shoulders they stand on, these activists are fighting for a society in which the heart of the social contract is a commitment to meeting the needs of all within it. Struggling, personally and politically, for food, healthcare, education, or a home, while the government subsidizes banks, property developers, and multinational corporations in a cavalier fashion, is not a sustainable way to configure society. 

Criminalization of activists

However, instead of commending these activists and their community organizations for courageously speaking out about the widespread human rights violations that are occurring in communities facing aggressive gentrification pressures, the mainstream media continuously mislabels these non-violent protests using violence-invoking terms such as “riots”, just as they did with the recent community protests demanding justice after the police shooting of 16-year-old Kimani Gray in Brooklyn, New York. (see, for example, U.S. News coverage). These protests are not only labeled as “riots” but are being treated by city officials as if they were riots. Police officers are often deployed in riot gear, sometimes with automatic weapons, in response to peaceful protests. At the Kimani Gray protests, 47 people have been arrested so far. 

Take action

As we piled out of court, we were reflecting on the devastating effect that the outcome of this case could have on Deborah, her friends, family, and LA CAN as an organization. We were also discussing the increasing number of similar ‘human rights defender’ arrests and prosecutions, and thinking about how to better organize ourselves collectively in light of this attack. Communities, and community organizations, are under attack across the country, and yet, even under these circumstances and on these somber occasions, we have a deep and unfailing belief in the work of human rights activists within our communities who are trying to ensure that we all have our basic needs and rights met. Whether it’s Deborah’s human rights community in Los Angeles, Michael’s New York human rights and Occupy communities, or Toussaint’s Chicago housing, youth, education, and health activist communities – there is a systematic attempt to criminalize protest and airbrush the most vulnerable out of the picture. Yet, in response, organized and strong resistance continues.

We need your help to defend Deborah. Please take the following actions as soon as you can:  

  • Help to spread the word about Deborah’s case, so more people are aware of what is happening to our activists.
  • Please also call the LA City Attorney’s office directly on 213-978-8100 and ask for the unjust charges against Deborah Burton to be dropped.
  • For court support dates and updates on Deborah’s case, stay in touch with LA CAN via twitter @LACANetwork and the website  
  • You can hear KPFK’s interview with Becky Dennison and Peter White of LA CAN about Deborah’s case here.

You can read more about Michael’s case here, and Toussaint’s case here


The Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN): LA CAN was formed in 1999 as a resident-led organization focused on human rights, particularly housing rights, civil rights, healthy food access, and women’s rights.  Since 2006, LA CAN has led the charge against the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), which has brought up to 150 additional police officers into the Skid Row community and resulted in the criminalization of large numbers of homeless and low-income, predominantly African-American, residents of the downtown area.  In 2011, LA CAN and partners began protesting the business organization – Central City East Association’s (CCEA) – “Skid Row Walk” as it served as a tool to promote the SCI, perpetuate myths about homeless people, and, while suggesting it was representative of the desires of the Downtown LA community, lacked any voice or participation from low-income community residents.  The unfettered impacts of gentrification continue to impact the LA communities – find out more about LACAN and how you can support communities fighting for their human rights at: