SF activist falsely accused

February 6, 2012

Alex Schmaus reports on the upcoming trial of DeBray "Fly Benzo" Carpenter.

BAYVIEW-HUNTERS Point neighborhood resistance leader, emcee and City College student DeBray "Fly Benzo" Carpenter is on trial in San Francisco, facing charges of resisting arrest, obstructing and assault on a police officer.

Fly Benzo's case has implications for First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, press and assembly, and the struggle against police violence, poverty and gentrification in Southeast San Francisco.

Police pulled the plug of a boombox in Mendell Plaza near Third Street and Palou Avenue at about 1 p.m. on October 18, 2011.

"One cop said the boombox was using city power. The other cop said it was too loud," said Benzo's lawyer, Severa Keith. "People have been plugging in that boombox right there for years. That corner is used for everything. People set up barbecues and have all sorts of things going on there. None of the people there got a ticket for anything," said Keith.

After the boombox episode, Benzo began using his camera phone to record the police. "They were harrasing me," said Benzo. "And Officer Fry took out his iPhone and started recording me first."

Fly Benzo speaking at a protest outside San Francisco's City Hall
Fly Benzo speaking at a protest outside San Francisco's City Hall (Indybay.org)

In a video recording of Benzo's arrest, a cop can be seen grabbing and shoving Benzo's arm twice to try and knock the camera phone out of his hand. Then a cop can be seen twisting Benzo's arm behind his back, as three more grab him and wrestle him to the sidewalk. He is then held face down on the cement. At one point, a cop can be seen using his knee to pin Benzo's neck to the ground.

Officer Norment allegedly sustained a concussion when his head hit a wall or post during the arrest, but Benzo appears to remain nonviolent in the video.

DeBray is currently out on $95,000 bail, but faces up to four years of prison time for multiple charges that are being brought against him by the district attorney's office--including videotaping the police.

WAS BENZO acting within his First Amendment rights when he used his camera phone to record the police? He thinks he was.

He wrote recently in the San Francisco Bayview about an August 26, 2011, U.S. appeals court ruling that citizens' rights to videotape police in public spaces are "unambiguously" protected by the First Amendment (Glik v. Cunniffe).

"In the interest of justice and the protection of United States citizens from abuse of authoritative power, there is no logical reason why there should be a law prohibiting the filming of police officers," wrote Benzo.

Benzo had performed at a neighborhood demonstration against police violence the day before his arrest, and police pulled the plug on the sound that day, too. He is well known for speaking out about challenges facing Bayview-Hunters Point, which is one of the poorest communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

From 13.4 percent in 1970, the Black population of San Francisco has fallen to 6.1 percent in 2010. Bayview-Hunters Point has the largest proportion--32 percent--of Black people in any neighborhood in the city.

It is a neighborhood still dealing with the aftermath of the July 16, 2011, death of Kenneth Harding, a 19-year-old who was shot at ten times by SFPD as he ran away through Mendell Plaza. Bullets pierced his leg and neck, and entered his brain, killing him.

According to witnesses, police chased Harding from the Muni light-rail T-line after he ran away from them for not paying the $2 fare. Incredibly, police now claim that Harding died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

At the time, Benzo told ABC Channel 7, "Regardless of if they found a gun or not, it's the fact they chased him from the T-train over a [$2] transfer, and while there's real crime going on."

Benzo's trial was in the jury selection process as this article was being written. The trial is expected to begin this week.

First published in the City College Guardsman.

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