He doesn’t belong in jail

April 26, 2012

Alex Schmaus reports on a mobilization by Bay Area activists to defend Fly Benzo, who faces an April 27 sentencing date after an unjust conviction for videotaping police.

SAN FRANCISCO activist Debray "Fly Benzo" Carpenter, who earlier this year was unjustly convicted of three misdemeanors--resisting arrest, obstructing a police officer and assault on a police officer--will face a sentence imposed by Judge Jerome Benson on April 27. Each misdemeanor could carry up to a year in county jail or probation.

"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 of his October 2011 arrest at a recent press conference. "I was beat up, hospitalized and arrested and given a $95,000 bail."

About 30 of Benzo's supporters attended the press conference that took place on April 18 in Mendell Plaza, a gathering place in the heart of San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood and the site of his October 2011 arrest.

Archbishop Franzo King of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, a foreclosure fighter and longtime Bayview-Hunters Point resident, was a speaker at the press conference.

"I don't understand how we can [convict] an innocent young Black man who has a 4.0 average at City College, who has been a spokesman and an example in this community." he said. "How we can find him guilty, but we can't find justice for a murder that was committed here?"

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

Archbishop King was referring to the death of 19-year-old Kenneth Harding Jr., who was shot by San Francisco police as he ran away from them near Mendell Plaza in July 2011. The police were chasing Harding from a public light-rail station for failing to provide proof of payment of the $2 fare.

A disturbing video that has been widely circulated shows how police surrounded the injured Harding and prevented others from helping him. Harding bled to death on the sidewalk after 30 minutes with no medical attention. Police have since claimed that Harding died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

BENZO IS known for being an outspoken critic of the role of the police in Harding's death. At the time, Benzo said to 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."

Harding's uncle, Marco Scott, was a speaker at Benzo's April 18 press conference. "It is a shame when an activist such as Fly Benzo can't have the right to free speech. All he wanted to do was fight for justice for my nephew" Scott said.

What you can do

Show your support for Fly Benzo by attending his sentencing hearing on April 27 at 9 a.m. in Department 27 of the San Francisco County Hall of Justice, 850 Bryant Street.

Sign a petition calling for all charges to be immediately dropped against DeBray "Fly Benzo" Carpenter. Visit the "Free Fly Benzo" Facebook page for updates about the case and how to get involved.

"Fly Benzo is not guilty, and in fact, he was convicted of a jury not of his peers and a jury that didn't hear the whole story," Benzo's lawyer, Severa Keith, said at the press conference. "There is simply no justice in what happened in the courts for him."

There were no African American jurors on the jury that convicted Benzo.

Benzo has said that he had been consistently harassed by police for months prior to his October 2011 arrest, but Judge Benson refused to allow any evidence related to Benzo's prior interactions with neighborhood police.

In fact, on July 23, 2011, just 24 hours after publicly criticizing the role of the police in Harding's death again, this time on public-access television, Benzo was approached by neighborhood police and arrested. He was released from jail almost four days later with no charges filed.

Benson refused to comment when, at an April 20 pre-sentencing hearing, Keith asked him why he chose to limit evidence during the trial. "I have nothing to add to the ruling I made during the trial," Benson said.

Keith told Benson that she was preparing an appeal of the verdict. She said that she believed evidence of unlawful arrest and discriminatory prosecution provide grounds for the appeal. Keith also stated that the group of more than 40 of Benzo's supporters in the courtroom spoke volumes to the quality of Benzo's character and his suitability for probation as opposed to jail time.

Willie Ratcliff, publisher of the national Black newspaper, the San Francisco Bay View, testified as a character witness during the pre-sentencing hearing. "We really need leadership in that neighborhood," Ratcliff said. "It would really hurt us if he was taken away from us."

BAYVIEW-HUNTERS Point is the last largely Black neighborhood in San Francisco and one of the poorest communities in the Bay Area.

Ratcliff said that Benzo "is a leader of young people. The elders admire him because he stands up for young people. He has organized people to get work where they are building on top of the hill."

Benzo recently helped to organize a successful civil disobedience action to pressure construction contractors to enforce local hire laws in Bayview-Hunters Point. Benzo's mother, Barbara Banks, a local painting contractor, won a contract as a result of Benzo's activism.

Banks testified as a character witness during Benzo's pre-sentencing hearing. She said, "My bid was negotiated, but then they never contacted me. [Benzo], who knew laws, pursued justice. With his knowledge and courage, he was able to facilitate fairness for community contractors, and I was able to hire people from the community. The biggest thing he is guilty of is caring too much."

"I'm the person who goes along to get along, but he is not like that," Banks continued. "He stands up for me when I don't have the courage to do it. I admire him for that. I pray that you don't send him to jail. That won't be good for him."

Benzo's father, Claude Carpenter, spoke to videographer Earl Black outside the pre-sentencing hearing:

I never thought that he would become a political activist, but I am very proud that my son chooses to stand up, and I stand up alongside him. Every opportunity that he gets, he chooses to stand up for me and his mom. And that is one of the most beautiful things you can experience as a father. When your son is standing up for our people.

I experienced it myself. I experienced being taken to a jury trial just for standing up for righteousness, so I know what it is like for my son--but it is very difficult for me as a father to see my son being subjected as a political prisoner, because that's what he is.

I believe that as long as we stand up with him, so that he knows and society knows he's not standing alone, there're people that believe in what he stands for, that are willing to stand up with him. So we have to come out in force, we have to be at this sentencing hearing, we have to come out in number to let them know that you just can't make an example out of Fly.

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