For the past month, activists in Southern California known as the “Justice 8” have been fighting charges brought about by the San Bernardino DA alleging that the accused activist engaged in criminal acts related to several protests that took place last summer in response to acts of police misconduct, anti-Latino racism, and discriminatory practices targeting street vendors.
From the onset, accusations of racism and political bias have not only shadowed the case, but shed light on concerns regarding freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble, and the implications of government overreach.
Who Are The ‘Justice 8’?
The “Justice 8,” also sometimes referred to as the “Victorville 8,” is a collection of Latino activists and concerned citizens who individually advocate for police reform and street vendor rights among other issues.
The defendants are accused of allegedly taking part in several violent acts at two demonstrations that took place last September in both Pomona and Victorville, California respectively. The latter was in response to a 16-year-old girl who was body-slammed by a Victorville PD officer after a football game.
Edin Alex Enamorado is perhaps the most well-known of the eight defendants, having gained a following online for his aggressive and unyielding style of activism that has incurred both praise and ire for his tactics. Over the past several years, Enamorado had amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on both Instagram and TikTok, where he often posted videos exposing both police and racist assailants who have harassed and/or threatened street vendors and Latinos across Southern California.
The other seven defendants include Wendy Lujan, 40 (Enamorado’s partner) Fernando Lopez, 44. Vanessa Carrasco, 40. Stephanie Amesquita, 33. Gullit Eder Acevedo, 30. David Chavez, 28. And Edwin Pena, 26.
The “Justice 8” were targeted and arrested during a series of early morning raids launched on the defendants’ homes last month in what law enforcement agencies have referred to as “Operation Accountability,” a nearly three-month-long investigation into the alleged Pomona and Victorville incidents.
The series of raids were carried out by the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, Fontana P.D., Pomona P.D., Upland P.D., and the Victorville P.D. Seven of the eight members are also facing a litany of felony charges ranging from conspiracy, assault with a deadly weapon, and false imprisonment. Enamorado, who law enforcement has singled out as the alleged ‘leader’, faces the most charges with a total of 16.
The charges against him include false imprisonment, assault, and unlawful use of tear gas by a convicted felon among others. Gullit Eder Acevedo, a middle-school history teacher has since had three of the four charges against him dropped, with the last charge reduced to a misdemeanor aggravated assault.
Since the initial shock and awe of the arrests more than a month ago, doubts regarding the validity of the charges against the “Justice 8” have been omnipresent. Despite the conspiracy charges, the accused defendants are not an official or organized group. The individuals who have shown up to various protests have done so on their own accord with varying degrees of participation, with some engagement limited to merely live-streaming said protests.
In a press conference immediately following the arrests San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus was quick to criticize the common modern-day practice of live-streaming protests on cellular phones and characterize the defendants as disingenuous and vigilantes who use social media to exploit alleged victims.
“This group manipulates videos and photos on social media in an attempt to make them look like they are protectors of underrepresented people. However they use racism to threaten and intimidate their victims, causing them to get on their knees and beg for forgiveness while still assaulting them,” Sheriff Dicus said during the press conference. “This group is not about substance for the human condition, but rather clickbait for cash,” he added.
However, supporters and observers claim that the accusations and behavior alleged by law enforcement run contrary to past conduct observed by the public, and undercut the Sheriff’s claim of defendants manipulating video for personal gain.
In a report following the arrests, Assignment Editor Mike Rogers of KCAL News said that Enamarado’s street vendor advocacy had been on the outlet’s radar for some time and that, “we (KCAL) frequently get these videos sent to us when they are protesting people at their home and 99% of them are live streamed.”
Rogers proceeded to say, “I’ve actually watched live streams of these protests before, I’ve certainly never seen any of the activities described by the sheriff’s department.”
Likewise, the defense attorneys for multiple members of the “Justice 8” have said that multiple statements made by law enforcement have either been amended or recanted under cross-examination, which has further undermined the validity of law enforcement’s testimony in the eyes of supporters and public opinion.
Attorney Dan Chambers, who represents Acevedo said in a post made on Instagram that following several days of preliminary hearings, “my client’s name has been mentioned once, and all of the cops that have testified so far have admitted that they no evidence whatsoever that Jag (Acevedo) was at Pomona, involved in Pomona, planned Pomona, or encouraged Pomona. Two full days and no evidence of my client involved in any sort of conspiracy to do anything whatsoever.”
Innocent Until Proven Guilty?
Thus far, bail for all but one of the defendants has been denied. Supporters and defense attorneys alike have been quick to criticize the decision to deny bail to seven of the eight defendants.
Gullit “Jaguar” Acevedo was the only defendant to be released on $40,000 bail. According to Acevedo’s attorney Dan Chambers over fifty character letters were submitted to the court petitioning for his release. He was ultimately granted bail on the conditions that he doesn’t contact any of the ‘victims’, cease contact with other defendants, and refrain from posting on social media.
Although Acevedo was granted bail, the beloved educator and longtime community advocate was unfortunately fired from his job as a middle school history teacher at Hardy Brown College Prep.
According to a parent of one of Acevedo’s students, on January 1st, the parents of Acevedo’s students received an email as reported by L.A. Taco from Hardy Brown College Prep’s principal informing them that he would no longer employed at Hardy Brown and that a new teacher would replace him to instruct class for the remainder of the school year. No further explanations for Acevedo’s firing were given in the email.
Aside from the obvious threat of imprisonment, supporters of the “Justice 8” claim that law enforcement in San Bernardino County are attempting to criminalize the First Amendment rights of activists, and sending a message to intimidate future activists from criticizing elected officials or holding protests against police brutality/misconduct by making an example of the “Justice 8.”
Supporters have also questioned the validity of the accusations made against the “Justice 8” since many of the accusations were not fully investigated and detectives solely relied on the statements of several still unnamed “victims.”
Many supporters also charge that the hyper-criminalization comes not only from law enforcement but top local leadership as well. Specifically, Fontana Mayor Aquanetta Warren, whose home Enamorado organized a protest outside of after the group filed a federal lawsuit against the city for discrimination against street vendors shortly before his arrest.
Many supporters believe that prosecutors and police are attempting to silence and criminalize activists by making an example of the “Justice 8.”
Free Speech: Moving Forward
After several days of meticulous cross-examinations, witness testimonies, and final arguments Judge Zahara Arredondo ruled that multiple felonies had been committed by the group based on evidence and witness testimonies presented in court. Bail was once again denied for the seven remaining defendants, who are set to return to court on January 19th where they will be arraigned and have the opportunity to enter new “not guilty” pleas.
In a recent interview on the Social Primate Podcast Chambers called the continued detention of the remaining defendants “unprecedented” saying, “These seven are sitting in a jail cell for protesting basically, stuff that ordinarily they would have been released at arraignment with on their one recognizance or given a GPS monitor. It’s unprecedented really what’s happening to all eight of them.”
“It’s unprecedented that somebody that has committed the alleged crimes that they are accused of are still sitting there after a month.” Chambers also lamented that the overcharging of all eight defendants, despite scant evidence of any relation to one another smacks of political retaliation.
“It’s very clear from the way the prosecutor charged this case that they didn’t really give any careful thought to the individual liability or responsibilities of each defendant,” Chambers explained. “They just lumped them all together, they charged them pretty much with all the same stuff…so it is very crazy how it’s all been charged and overcharged just as a way to silence them.”
The case of the “Justice 8” has not taken place in a vacuum and sadly is one of several cases where protestors have been overcharged or where conspiracy charges have been used to criminalize normally protected acts such as free speech, attendance at protests, and group ties against defendants.
Last month, five USF students dubbed the “Tampa 5” had felony charges against them dropped following a protest at USF in March in response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to ban diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives on college campuses. Likewise, the first of several RICO trials against protestors in Atlanta, Georgia protesting the construction of the “Cop City” facility has also highlighted an uptick of broad, sweeping conspiracy charges being weaponized against protestors. Especially those critical of law enforcement and politicians holding office.
The prosecutors in the “Justice 8” case have hinted at the possibility of charging more people as they continue investigating. However, any further charges have yet to materialize. All eight defendants are set to return to court on January 19th where they will be arraigned and have the opportunity to enter new pleas.