No jail time, but no justice

May 2, 2012

Alex Schmaus reports on the sentencing of Bay Area activist Debray "Fly Benzo" Carpenter--and explains why both his conviction and sentence are unjust.

SAN FRANCISCO activist Debray "Fly Benzo" Carpenter, who was unjustly convicted of three misdemeanors--resisting arrest, obstructing a police officer and assault on a police officer--in February, was sentenced to three years probation by Judge Jerome Benson on April 27.

Benzo, a City College student, activist and emcee, was arrested last October during a confrontation between police officers Joshua Fry and John Norment and a group of Bayview-Hunters Point residents.

"The only thing I did was film a cop and I told him how I felt about how he was policing in my community," Benzo said. "I was beat up, hospitalized and arrested, and given $95,000 bail."

The well-known community activist was also sentenced to six months in county jail for each of the three misdemeanors, with the possibility of serving two of the six-month terms concurrently, but those sentences were suspended.

Judge Benson imposed 30 days of additional jail time, but Benzo already served 11 days before his release on bail and will likely serve the remaining 19 days cleaning the streets through the sheriff's "work alternative" program.

Fly Benzo speaking at a protest outside San Francisco's City Hall
Fly Benzo speaking at a protest outside San Francisco's City Hall (

The conditions of Benzo's probation include a requirement to remain an arms-length away from all police and a requirement to submit to any search by police with or without a warrant or probable cause. He is also banned from possessing weapons and is required to pay nearly $1,000 in fines, successfully complete anger management classes and perform 100 hours of community service.

BENZO IS also required to stay away from Mendell Plaza and all of Third Street between Oakdale Avenue and Quesada Avenue. The stay-away order, which will be debated at Benzo's next hearing on June 8, is particularly egregious.

Mendell Plaza is a vital public space in the heart of Bayview-Hunters Point, the last largely Black neighborhood in San Francisco and one of the poorest communities in the Bay Area. "We just did an event where we fed over 100 people at that location," Benzo said to Judge Benson. "People want me to be involved in the planning and execution of those events."

The plaza is close to where 19-year-old Kenneth Harding Jr. was murdered by police last year over a $2 train fare. Following Harding's murder, Benzo became known for his outspoken criticism of policing in Bayview-Hunters Point, making him a target of police harassment that culminated in his October 2011 arrest.

"The stay-away order is an evolved form of the Black Codes, which prohibited African people from being able to move freely" in the post-Civil War South, said Shango Abiola, a City College student and field marshal of the Black Riders Liberation Party. Abiola added:

Stay-away orders are usually part of gang injunctions, and as far as I know [Benzo] is not involved in gangs. He is a key resistance leader and organizer in that area. Being someone who organizes people on the street, he doesn't have a 9-to-5 office to check-in at. He is going to the people in Mendell Plaza. So this is a direct attempt on the part of the local state apparatus to prevent him from leading the struggle of the disenfranchised.

The mobilization of Benzo's supporters, about 40 of whom packed his April 27 sentencing hearing, might have kept him out of jail for now, but we still have work to do to secure justice.

Now that he is on probation, Benzo's supporters will need to remain vigilant to the increased threat of continued police harassment. Opposing the stay-away order will be key to supporting Benzo's work as an activist in his own neighborhood, and there is a need for fundraising to help Benzo pay his fines and bail debt.

Finally, should Benzo decide to go forward with an appeal of the verdict, we will need to do what we can to support him in his new legal battle.

Further Reading

From the archives