SF activist unjustly convicted

March 7, 2012

Alex Schmaus reports on the outcome of a trial of a San Francisco activist.

BAYVIEW-HUNTERS Point resistance leader, emcee and City College of San Francisco student Debray "Fly Benzo" Carpenter was convicted February 22 on misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest, obstructing a police officer and assault on a police officer. He was acquitted on a felony charge of resisting arrest, and the jury failed to reach a verdict on a felony charge of obstructing police with the use of threats or violence.

Dozens of supporters mobilized to sit in court with Benzo during his trial. "While the outcome could have been much worse, we wanted better" said Benzo's lawyer, Severa Keith.

The charges stem from Benzo's arrest on October 18 of last year during a confrontation between a group of Bayview-Hunters Point residents and San Francisco police officers Joshua Fry and John Norment. Bayview-Hunters Point is the last largely Black neighborhood in San Francisco and one of the poorest communities in the Bay Area.

The confrontation began when Fry pulled the plug on a community boom box in Mendell Plaza, a neighborhood gathering place. Benzo was using his phone to video Fry and Norment when he was arrested.

Fly Benzo joins in a rally in his defense
Fly Benzo joins in a rally in his defense

Police pulled the plug on the sound while Benzo was performing at a neighborhood demonstration against police violence the day before as well. But according to Keith, "The judge refused to allow any evidence related to [Benzo's] prior interactions with these officers, which included incidents of racist acts, threatening acts, taunting and evidence that their superiors had told them to video record him."

Keith said she was "shocked" that such evidence was excluded. She said she is planning an appeal of the verdict. "It is clear from watching the video of [Benzo's] arrest that the incident did not start on that day," said Keith. "There was a history there, and the jury did not hear it."

As Benzo said: "The court system cannot be trusted. There were no Black people on the jury. I was judged by my race and the way I wear my hair. Slavery and racism are alive and well."

Benzo is known for speaking out about the July 16, 2011, death of 19-year-old Kenneth Harding, who was shot at ten times by the SFPD as he ran away from officers through Mendell Plaza. Bullets pierced Harding's leg and neck, and entered his brain, killing him. Police now claim that Harding died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The cops were chasing Harding from a Muni transit station for not paying the $2 fare. At the time, Benzo told a local television station, "Regardless of if they found a gun or not, it's the fact they chased him from the T-train over a [$2] transfer."

Twenty-four hours after publicly criticizing the SFPD again, this time on public-access television, Benzo was approached by police and arrested July 23, 2011, near the intersection of Oakdale Avenue and Lane Street. Benzo was released from jail almost four days later with no charges filed.

Despite the hardship of $95,000 bail and time in court, Benzo is working to progress at City College. "I'm working on a paper about African heritage for my English class," he said. "I'm not doing so well, but the teacher said its amazing I've been able to do what I have."

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 20. Possible outcomes range from probation to one year in county jail for each misdemeanor.

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