Housing and human rights activist Deborah Burton has for countless years peacefully spoken out against the criminalization of homeless and low-income residents of L.A.’s Skid Row community. But in August 2012, the Los Angeles City Attorney accused Deborah of assault for using a toy air-horn during a protest 14 months earlier. Yesterday, more than two years after the alleged incident, a two-week-long trial against this 61-year-old grandmother concluded when a jury of Deborah’s peers announced its verdict on eight bogus charges: not guilty on all counts.Deborah’s hard-fought victory is a powerful condemnation of the increased targeting by law enforcement in this country, and around the world, of grassroots organizers and human rights activists. In fact, at several of the pre-trial hearings prosecutors had asked if they could obtain lists of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) activists and anyone who attended meetings or protests.
Since 2006, Deborah and LACAN have voiced opposition to LAPD’s Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), a measure that intensified the police’s presence in Skid Row and led to frequent arrests of the neighborhood’s homeless residents, mostly on very low level charges like sitting on the sidewalk. Starting in 2011, LA CAN members and allies organized protests at the Central City East Association’s (CCEA) monthly “Skid Row Walk,” an event that helped promote SCI, perpetuated myths about homeless people, and was devoid of any perspective or participation from members of the homeless community. The unjust criminal accusations against Deborah were the result of an ongoing effort by the CCEA, the LAPD, and the City Attorney to stifle the voices of LACAN’s activists and others engaged in opposing the criminalization of homelessness.
Despite the serious and draconian consequences Deborah faced if convicted, including significant jail time, she and her fellow activists refused to bow to intimidation tactics. In fact, just weeks before Deborah’s trial was set to begin, a group of activists marched into an LAPD Commission meeting to demand that the charges against Deborah be dropped and an investigation launched into the handling of Deborah’s prosecution. The constitutionally protected right to organize and speak out against human rights violations is critical to achieve the economic and social rights that LACAN and many others are seeking to achieve, especially when powerful political and corporate interests stand in opposition to these rights. NESRI stands with LACAN in its courageous work advancing the human right to housing and defending communities against basic rights violations. Deborah’s heroic stand, and this just outcome, represents a victory for the Skid Row community and for human rights activists everywhere.