Photo via NBC San Diego
While people took to the streets across the country to protest a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who was caught on video as he killed Eric Garner with a chokehold, several dozen demonstrators massed outside the courthouse in downtown San Diego on Thursday to show their support for accused gang members who're facing criminal conspiracy charges—among them Brandon Duncan, aka San Diego rapper Tiny Doo, who’s facing a possible twenty-five-years-to-life prison sentence for putting out a rap album.
The crowd included rapper Freddie Gibbs, himself known for his nimble rhymes about street life, who came out to show his support for Duncan and learn more about the case.
“If they could lock him up, they could lock me up,” Gibbs told Noisey as he waited outside the courtroom for Duncan's hearing to start. “I feed my family off my raps. He was trying to do the same thing."
As I wrote earlier this week, Duncan has been charged along with fourteen others in a case centering around a series of shootings that prosecutors say were committed by San Diego’s violent Lincoln Park Bloods gang. Duncan hasn’t been linked to any of the shootings, but under a California law that targets gang members, he’s accused of being an active member of the gang and promoting and benefiting from their crimes. For evidence, prosecutors have pointed to Facebook photos of himself with some of his co-defendants, and—even more controversially—his free mixtape, No Safety, which came out earlier this year and depicts a loaded gun on the cover.
In the hearing on Thursday, Superior Court Judge David M. Gill arraigned six defendants in the case, who all pleaded not guilty. The attorney for one of them, Aaron Harvey, said they would file a challenge to the legality of the charges, while Duncan demanded that his trial date be set for January 23.
Afterwards, in a separate hearing, attorneys for two other men accused alongside Duncan, Darryl Charles, Jr. and Jawaun Jones, tried to get their clients’ cases thrown out. They argued that the California law the men are being charged under—the same one that applies to Duncan—violates their constitutional rights because it’s too vague and casts too broad a net. After some deliberation, Judge Gill decided to let the two cases proceed, saying it was on the prosecutors to provide the proof supporting their case.
The case Duncan is involved in—as well as a similar criminal gang case in San Diego that the daily paper U-T San Diego discussed in an article over the weekend—raises questions about the extent to which rap music and Facebook posts are protected by the First Amendment. Prosecutors, the U-T reports, say both serve as tools for gang members to intimidate people, rep their gang and stoke bloody rivalries. On the other hand, the several dozen demonstrators who showed up to attend the hearing Thursday say this is just another way for authorities to harass and criminalize people of color, especially those who live in under-served neighborhoods.
This week the District Attorney's office made a statement about the case: “It’s important for the community to understand that this case is not about punishing someone for rapping and it’s not about a First Amendment issue. This case is about protecting our neighborhoods by taking violent gang members off the streets and holding them accountable for the crimes they commit using a law that voters passed and the court has recognized as constitutional.”
Congregating outside the San Diego County courthouse, the demonstrators waved signs while dressed up in an assortment of gang colors. Among them were family, friends, and community leaders from San Diego’s southeastern neighborhoods, and though their T-shirts were blue, red and green—the latter being a trademark hue of the Lincoln Park Bloods—with the words “IT’S JUST A COLOR!” were emblazoned across their chests.
“Just because we wear a certain color that might be affiliated to a certain gang in a certain neighborhood, we’re not in a gang,” said Armon Harvey, whose brother Aaron is facing charges alongside Duncan. Wearing a red baseball cap with #freeaaron sewed on the side, Harvey said young black men like him are especially vulnerable to California’s strict gang enhancement laws, which are used to ramp up convictions for “documented” gang members who commit crimes to advance their gang.
“I graduated high school. I done college. I traveled the world," he said. "I do all that, but yet you label me as a gang member.You document me as a gang member. And anything that I do, no matter what it is, can now be enhanced because of that documentation.” He's referring to how the laws "enhance" convictions, i.e. make them more severe.
The Sheriff’s Deputies refused to let the crowd enter with their bold-colored shirts and hats, saying that protests were banned inside the courthouse. So, some people reversed their shirts or pulled on sweaters in order to go inside and attend the hearing. In a long hallway leading to the courtroom, they waited patiently for it to start, chatting and making room when any passerby needed to snake through.
Demonstrators hold a prayer circle outside the San Diego downtown courthouse. Photo by Peter Holslin.
Jason Crawford, a professor at a local community college who works on TeenNick projects with Nick Cannon, says he finds the charges “mind-boggling.” In the months before the arrests, he says he was teaching a multimedia class at the college in which a few of the defendants, including Duncan, had been learning how to make music for TV and film.
“They were hungry. They loved music, and they loved what they were doing, so it was like an outlet,” Crawford said. He pointed out that they were far away from gang drama. “They didn’t have to deal with any of the neighborhood hoopla. Safe environment. They were able to get work done and everything.”
Duncan's legal situation is getting media attention just as people have gone out to protest the recent grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner—both of whom were unarmed black men. For Gibbs, all of this underscores the skewed relationship many have with authorities and the police.
“It’s crazy, the things that they’re doing to us right now,” he said. “We’re really living in a police state. These guys can do what they want to do to us. We’re at their disposal, like cattle, and that ain’t cool.”
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