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Photo by Jack GouldFor animal-rights activist Sarah Roberts, the worst thing about being a political prisoner was the food. But her refusal to eat meals that violated her vegan taste buds may have been the key factor behind her sudden release from jail on May 30—almost six months ahead of schedule.
Roberts, 26, spent a total of 10 days behind bars but is now serving out the remainder of her jail term at her Los Angeles apartment with an electronic monitoring device strapped to her ankle. She was arrested during a violent anti-capitalist demonstration in Long Beach on May 1, 2001. Because some protesters—members of the so-called Anarchist Black Block—threw rocks at police, the demonstration was ruled unlawful. Police shot Roberts and roughly 100 other demonstrators, including some from Orange County, with rubber bullets and bean bags and then arrested them.
Unlike almost all the other people arrested that day, Roberts refused to plead guilty and pay the $100 fine offered by prosecutors as a way to avoid a jury trial and possible jail time. While most anarchists who came to the protest armed with rocks and gas masks pleaded guilty and moved on, Roberts opted for a trial by her peers, determined, as she put it, to stand up for her rights as an American.
"I wanted to go to trial because part of me wanted to prove I was innocent and partly to fight for freedom," she said. "This wasn't particularly my protest, but I wanted to stand up for free speech and the right not to be shot down and forced to take a deal [from prosecutors]."
Roberts had good reason to refuse to accept a plea bargain: she felt she had committed no crime. Although the May Day protest that took place in Long Beach was indeed violent, most of the violence came at the hands of police who showered protesters with rubber bullets shortly after issuing a dispersal order that many demonstrators, including Roberts, say they never even heard.
Although she concealed her face with a bandana at the protest, Roberts said she took it off several times because it was uncomfortable. Unlike the Black Block anarchists, Roberts—who did have on black clothing—also had a bright red cross painted across her chest—hardly helping her accomplish the anarchist aim of blending in with the crowd. In fact, before the day of the protest, Roberts says she hadn't even heard of the Black Block.
Moreover, before that day, she had attended only a handful of protests, all of them with fellow animal-rights activists. At one protest shortly before last year's May Day melee, Roberts helped pass out literature in front of a bank she says was investing in animal laboratories. That's where she met a friend who later invited her to the May Day rally in Long Beach. At his suggestion, she carried a bag full of medical supplies to treat wounded protesters.
"I was nervous at the idea that police might hurt anybody," she said. "But I didn't think there was anything wrong with carrying something that would help people. I was so innocent and naive, and I got arrested because I followed every [police] order that I heard."
For several minutes, police attempted to herd the crowd away from the cafťs and restaurants that line Pine Street near Ocean Boulevard in downtown Long Beach. Then police began shooting protesters at random with rubber bullets and bean bags. A businessman leaving his office for lunch went to the hospital with an injured eye; dozens of demonstrators were decorated with painful purple bruises.
None of that mattered to the jury, which finally heard Roberts' case almost a year later and felt that because she wore a bandana over her face, she was just as guilty of throwing rocks as the rock throwers themselves. Last month, after a two-week trial, a jury convicted her of wrongful assembly and wearing a mask with the intent to commit a crime. The judge sentenced her to six months in jail at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown LA, and Roberts was led directly from the courtroom to her cell.
Her only request was that she be fed vegetarian meals. "I told the judge that I was a vegan," Roberts recalled. "I told him that I was willing to die for it." Jail officials responded by offering her everything from bologna sandwiches and eggs to oatmeal with milk. When Roberts asked for vegan food, they gave her apples and oranges.
Roberts complained about her treatment during a live interview broadcast from the jail on KFPK's Democracy Now. She credits that interview with helping launch a public-pressure campaign that apparently drove jail officials to allow her to be released from Twin Towers and placed under house arrest.
"I think it ultimately worked to their disadvantage because everyone was so worried and called in for me," she said. "So . . . they told me I could go home."
Although she's not supposed to leave her apartment for more than 30 seconds at a time, Roberts hopes she'll receive permission to travel to Sacramento and testify on behalf of a proposed state bill by state Senator Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) that would limit penalties for protesters convicted of unlawful assembly to a $100 fine and two days behind bars. "If they let me, I'll go," she said. "I'm obviously really interested in helping push that bill. I think it will help keep freedom alive."