Jasmine Richards grew up on the wrong side of the 210 Freeway in Pasadena, just a few blocks from where we met at La Pintoresca Park. The 28-year-old founder of the Pasadena chapter of Black Lives Matter has been instrumental in bringing awareness of the vibrant national movement to the city, organizing low-income African-American residents. We met at the park where she regularly convenes meetings attended by dozens. But Richards isn’t just fighting for justice for her community; her own freedom is at stake.
On March 21, 2015, Richards marked the third anniversary of the fatal shooting by Pasadena police of 19-year-old Kendrec McDade by blocking streets in Old Pasadena. For that action she faces a slew of legal charges, including assault, trespassing, failure to comply with a peace officer, failure to turn down amplified sound, making criminal threats and, most shockingly, making terrorist threats.
Richards moved to Northwest Pasadena when she was 7 years old and lived near the corner of Los Robles Avenue and Orange Grove Boulevard, an area that police considered “zero tolerance.” This meant that any congregating by neighbors was treated as a threat to public safety. “I grew up lost, I grew up around here searching for answers,” she said. “I played basketball, but I didn’t have anybody to show me how to go to college, take the SATs or anything like that.”
When she was only 14, Richards lost her brother. He was murdered in Los Angeles in broad daylight in a drive-by shooting. “They said, ‘What gang are you from?’ and he said, ‘I don’t gangbang,’ and they killed him,” she explained stoically. His death devastated her. “I got into drugs, I got into drinking. I had scholarships for basketball, but I just quit basketball,” she told me. “I saw no more need to live because I’m like, ‘You’re just gonna get killed anyway.’”
The daily violence that’s part of being black in America has hit Richards hard. She told me how utterly weary she has become of the deaths and killing. “I’m tired of putting my friends as tattoos on my arms,” she said, pulling up her sleeve to show me the name “Wilson,” flanked by the numbers 1/17/89 on one side and 8/20/11 on the other. She pointed to the dates and explained, “This is when my friend was born, and this is his death day. … I’m sick and tired.”
After she began protesting McDade’s killing by police, she met his mother, Anya Slaughter, and a deep bond formed between the two. “In her I see my mother, who’s lost her son,” she said. “And I see how when they lose their children, they lose themselves. She had to relearn how to write, relearn how to eat. That moved me, and I’m determined not to lose any more friends.”
Remaining resolute, she said, “I promised his mom that I’m going to get her justice, and I’m going to keep that promise.”
But Richards has paid a heavy personal price for her activism. “I’ve gotten fired from my job,” she told me. “I’ve gotten kicked out of my home, and I’m still here, organizing.”
While she was in jail, a crowdfunding campaign by Richards’ fellow Black Lives Matter activists raised $90,000 to bail her out. Her trial begins in September, and she is aware that some people want to make an example of her. When I asked her how hypocritical it was for her to be charged with “making terrorist threats” while Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who allegedly confessed to murdering nine people in South Carolina recently, has yet to face a single charge with a whiff of the loaded word “terrorism,” she shrugged it off. “I’m used to this now. I don’t expect them to value our lives. It doesn’t hurt me. It used to.”
Despite facing such serious charges, Richards remains positive, even euphoric, realizing the importance of her activism and the challenge she represents to the establishment. “I think it’s really funny, because when I was out here causing trouble, getting into everything, I never got in trouble with the law,” she said. “But once I picked up a bullhorn, I became a target, and that just showed me how powerful the woman’s, and black woman’s, voice is.”
I asked Richards to describe what it feels like to participate in political actions.
“I can’t even explain the feeling! It’s a feeling that starts in your toes, and it rises up and it goes into your spirit, and then something just comes out of you like a lion,” she said, laughing. “And it feels so good. It’s like stuff that was deep, deep, deep down and was just bursting to come out.
“Black Lives Matter has changed my life. For all those who think this is just a moment,” she added, “they have another think coming, because this is a movement, and it’s motivating the masses.”n
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and producer of the popular morning drive-time program “Uprising” on KPFK 90.7 FM and co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based nonprofit organization that funds the social, political and humanitarian projects of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). She is also a columnist for Truthdig, where a version of this article was first published.