Records show police surveilled and tried to charge a citizen journalist attacked at a California rally. Does it fit a pattern of punishing black protesters?
Cedric O’Bannon tried to ignore the sharp pain in his side and continue filming. The independent journalist, who was documenting a white supremacist rally in Sacramento, said he wanted to capture the neo-Nazi violence against counter-protesters with his GoPro camera.
But the pain soon became overwhelming. He lifted up his blood-soaked shirt and realized that one of the men carrying a pole with a blade on the end of it had stabbed him in the stomach, puncturing him nearly two inches deep. He limped his way to an ambulance.
But the police did not treat O’Bannon like a victim. Records obtained by the Guardian reveal that officers instead monitored his Facebook page and sought to bring six charges against him, including conspiracy, rioting, assault and unlawful assembly. His presence at the protest – along with his use of the black power fist and “social media posts expressing his ideals” – were proof that he had violated the rights of neo-Nazis at the 26 June 2016 protests, police wrote in a report.
None of the white supremacists have been charged for stabbing O’Bannon.
“The judicial system is supposed to find the people who attack me, and they come after me with all these crazy charges,” O’Bannon said in a recent interview in Oakland, where he lives. “It’s outrageous.”
O’Bannon’s case is the latest example of police in the US targeting leftwing activists, anti-Trump protesters and black Americans for surveillance and prosecution over their demonstrations and online posts. At the same time, critics say, they are failing to hold neo-Nazis responsible for physical violence.
After the attacks at the California capital, which left at least 10 people injured, police investigators expressed sympathy with the white supremacists and worked with them in an effort to target “anti-racist” demonstrators for charges, the Guardian reported in February. Though nearly all the victims were counter protesters, prosecutors have brought criminal cases against three anti-fascist activists. Only one member of the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), the neo-Nazi group behind the rally, is facing charges.
O’Bannon, 47, arrived early to the state capitol grounds the morning of the rally. The father of three, who grew up in northern California, has long been involved in activist groups fighting police brutality and said he wanted to be in a good position to document the events.
Chaos and violence quickly erupted. The neo-Nazis were the aggressors, O’Bannon recalled: “It was clear who was trying to attack me and who was trying to defend me.” Police later identified at least seven TWP men who were armed with knives.
One white supremacist with a long pole broke O’Bannon’s camera rig, knocking his GoPro to the ground, he said, adding that when he went to pick up his equipment from the ground, that was when he was speared on the right side of his body.
Police, he alleged, did little to protect him and others from the stabbings: “They let this battle go down.”
O’Bannon was soon rushed to a hospital, where he became worried that police would confiscate his footage, which could aid in revealing his perpetrator. When he awoke after surgery, his memory card was gone. Police left a note saying they had seized it as evidence.
When he eventually got his property back, he said, the card was empty, leading him to suspect police wiped it. Police denied erasing the footage.
But O’Bannon, who spent two weeks in the hospital, soon had other reasons to be suspicious of the police. When the California Highway Patrol (CHP) investigator Donovan Ayres called him months later as part of the investigation, the officer asked a series of questions about the anti-fascist activists and their supporters – and seemed much less interested in O’Bannon’s attack.
After O’Bannon provided a detailed account of the moment he was stabbed, Ayres interjected and said, “Hey, what’s your impression of Yvette Felarca?” according to a police recording of the call. Felarca was one of the anti-fascist activists who was also stabbed, but ultimately charged with assault based on Ayres’ investigation.
At one point on the call, Ayres said the TWP men had likely stabbed O’Bannon because they thought his camera rig was a weapon: “I kind of get why they may have perceived you as a threat.”
The investigator also asked O’Bannon to encourage anti-fascist activists to talk to the police and inquired about upcoming protests.
The call sharply contrasted with the tone of CHP’s communications with a TWP member when officers said officers told the neo-Nazi, “We’re pretty much going after [anti-fascists]”, and assured him, “We’re looking at you as a victim.”
‘Empowering groups that kill’
In his 26-minute call with O’Bannon, Officer Ayres did not ask him to comment on the many allegations he would later put in his report to prosecutors recommending a litany of charges.
Ayres’ report did not provide any evidence or even specific claims of O’Bannon committing acts of violence, but said he was “amongst the protesters” who allegedly attacked two local television reporters.
While repeatedly admitting that O’Bannon was filming the protests, the CHP report argued that he should still be charged with a range of serious offenses since he was standing in the area and “knew violence and criminal activity would be eminent”.
Ayres’ also noted O’Bannon’s history of activism, saying he “routinely attended protests and other controversial events as a journalist”. The officer claimed that one video showed O’Bannon “working in concert” with activists to “assault and falsely imprison” a Trump supporter outside a GOP event. The footage, however, simply showed O’Bannon and a group of journalists filming as protesters yelled at the Trump fan walking down the street.
Ayres further used numerous Facebook photos of O’Bannon raising a black power fist alongside two other black men stabbed in Sacramento to argue that the images revealed their “support for anti-racist activism” and motives to impede the rights of Nazis.
“It’s this white nationalist sentiment of trying to make it out like I’m a ‘black extremist’,” said O’Bannon, who was ultimately not charged. Noting the US government’s secretive efforts to monitor black activists, O’Bannon said he believed a white journalist would not have faced the same scrutiny.
The CHP declined to comment. Prosecutors have previously argued that there was no bias in the investigation. Ayres did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Michael German, a former FBI agent, said the Sacramento case was part of a pattern of police in the US siding with far-right groups and targeting their critics. “They have been trained to look into these counter protesters as if they are the primary threat.”
Statistics, noted German, who is a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, show that white supremacists are a danger, adding that this strategy “seems to give state sanctions to these groups that are hyper violent … empowering groups that kill.”
In Charlottesville, a black man beaten by white supremacists was charged with a felony, and leftwing activists who protested at Standing Rock and at Trump’s inauguration continue to face aggressive prosecutions years later.
O’Bannon, who has large scars on his stomach from the knife wound and the surgery, said his concerns that police were still targeting him would not prevent him from telling his story.
“We have to expose these things … before it gets worse,” he said, adding: “I’m 100% committed to speaking out against police terror, because I have that first amendment right.”
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