Sara Benjamin’s story: Arrested mother speaks out on incarceration of young, Black women leaders

Sara Benjamin with her daughter Imari.WW photo: Sharon Black

Sara Benjamin with her daughter Imari.
WW photo: Sharon Black

Baltimore —  I have been actively working with the People’s Power Assembly of Baltimore for more than six months. In this time we have protested the city’s youth curfew, which prohibits youth 17 and younger from being on the streets after 9 p.m.

The problem with the enforcement of this already existing law is that it leaves a lot of gray areas open for question. For example, it does not address the growing population of homeless youth and foster care youth who are runaways. This law gives the Baltimore police more authority to criminalize Black youth, especially Black men. It also imposes fines of up to $500 on the parents of youth who are stopped and detained.

A lot of urban families are one-parent-breadwinner households and these breadwinners work multiple jobs just to pay the rent and make ends meet. In an effort to revoke this law, we have gone into the communities and handed out “Know your rights” cards and talked one on one with the people.

In addition, we have a big movement here in Baltimore around police brutality, with protests and a proposal for community control of the police inspired by the 1971 Black Panther Party initiative. We are also demanding that the law enforcement “bill of rights” be changed to make police accountable for their actions in the community that they are suppose to serve and protect.

I attended and helped to promote and organize all the recent protests around police brutality, including the Jan. 15 Strike Against Racism rally and march. In recent months I have played a bigger role as a leader and organizer and soon became known through coverage in the local TV news and newspapers of my involvement with the People’s Power Assembly.

The Baltimore Police Department has tried hard to stop or water down the movement and has targeted core leaders in a number of ways — from tapping comrades’ homes to following us. There have been stories nationwide about young Black leaders, especially women and the leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, in an effort to destroy the unity and movement that youth who are frustrated and sick of police terror started.

As a leader, I find it extremely important to let the people, especially the most oppressed and poor communities, know that “Black-on-Black” crime is an extension of racism, where we the oppressed have internalized the hate the oppressor has for us.

Sick of capitalism, hopelessness

The divide-and-conquer tactic has worked in many cities, like Baltimore, where there are masses of people who are aware of the sick effects of capitalism. I see hopelessness in my city, where people are jobless and without health care. Young Black males have turned to gangs because that’s the only family unit they know. Mamas and Daddies are strung out on drugs and/or are in jail. The school-to-prison pipeline is destined to destroy the Black family, and if the Black family is obsolete, then the Black community will be obsolete.

Mass incarceration is becoming a thing in urban and poor cities worldwide. A Black man can get education and trade skills in jail, but once out, it is almost impossible to get lasting jobs that pay well enough to provide for their families. The People’s Power Assembly represents everything that the people of the city need: housing, health care, livable wages, jobs and an end to police brutality.

On Jan. 15, the People’s Power Assembly had our “Strike Against Racism, No Business as Usual” rally and march on Dr. Martin Luther King’s actual birth date. We had been planning and outreaching for months. At the same time, I had a bench warrant issued in my name, which is common in a “failure to appear” involving a court case. The case was for a simple assault that happened a year prior.

I was planning with my Public Defender, with whom I was in constant communication, to find a way to turn myself in that would not cause me to miss too much time with my 5-year-old daughter, whom I often bring to People’s Power protests. I had talked to the woman just two days before the scheduled protest and was openly talking about it at the Baltimore Solidarity Center, which I believe was tapped by the Baltimore Police Department, along with other places. That would not be unlikely since the government and police have done this for decades with other progressive organizations and groups demanding change against injustice.

Cops use a ‘wanted’ poster

On the day of the rally and march, I went to Baltimore City Community College, where I plan to attend classes in the 2015 Spring semester. After leaving the campus, I walked across the street to wait for the bus, so I could get my daughter from school early and we could both attend the protest.

While on the phone at the bus stop, an unmarked police car came up and two male officers approached me with a “Wanted” poster. They took me to the Central District building, where dozens of police officers were gearing up in helmets and body shields for “this dumb-ass protest,” as one officer called it.

From the moment I was in custody, law enforcement let me know that they knew who I was, given my involvement in activism in the city. When detained in the Women’s Detention Center, I was put in protective custody [solitary]. When I asked why I was there, a guard said, and I quote, “Because you are the director of an organization.”

I understood then, along with all my comrades, that the BPD planned to incarcerate a core leader of People’s Power — a core leader who is Black and a mother. Thankfully, I was let out on a $100 cash bail and released at roughly 10:00 p.m. the following day.

The experience of being incarcerated made me sympathize with other Black women leaders and activists, from the past to the present, who have been incarcerated for their influential roles in the movements. I understand now how important my role is in this movement. If anything, I am more determined now to speak out, give back, educate and move my people so that one day we can be completely free.

Even though the BPD tried to brand me “highly dangerous with all her tattoos,” I was strengthened, not broken by this experience. The government has a way of making the innocent look like criminals and the true criminals look innocent. It is now my personal obligation to bring light to this reality and I plan to do this until the day I die.

I appreciate the outpouring of love I have received from comrades, local and around the country, and want to take this time to say, “Thank you.” Together we can bring about real, lasting change.