Janet Mathieson, 22, grew up in the Belfast area and spent her teenage years in Portland. She is working toward a degree in creative writing and Africana studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, which is where she watched footage of a protest a few days before the July 4 demonstration. A group of anti-immigration protesters gathered in the small Southern California town of Murrieta to prevent three busloads of detained Central Americans from entering the community, where they were expected to be processed in a detention center, according to Reuters.
“Even though the majority of the people on the bus could not speak English, they can understand hate,” Mathieson said in a phone interview Friday. “The harassment and the people banging on the buses was terrifying.”
Mathieson and other pro-immigration activists traveled to Murrietta a few days later because they heard other busloads of detained migrants were expected to arrive. The buses didn’t come, but there, in temperatures that topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit, they found themselves in a tense situation with people demonstrating against the migrants, Mathieson said. There was yelling. Then she noticed someone in her group had been pushed, and she went to check on that person. Several of the people in the pro-migration group identify as queer, she said, and people on the other side of the issue were yelling homophobic slurs at them. It was an intense moment.
“I went to see if she was OK, because she was surrounded by the white supremacists,” Mathieson said. “That’s when a police officer came and asked me what happened. Then the police came after me, even though I had no involvement in what had happened. Then the police started grabbing my body.”
Eventually, the officer let her go, and five pro-immigration protesters linked arms and started walking away, Mathieson said, saying “we are leaving, we are leaving.” Another pro-immigration activist was live-streaming the clash.
“You can see that we are walking away,” she said.
But officers arrested all five, charging each of them with a count of felony lynching, described in documents filed Aug. 1 at Riverside County Superior Court as two or more persons acting together to take a person from the lawful custody of a police officer “willfully and unlawfully by riot (use of force and violence and the threat thereof).”
“As with any case, we reviewed the evidence presented to us by the law enforcement agency who investigated the case and filed what we believe are the appropriate charges,” John Hall, senior public information specialist with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News.
Mathieson’s arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 3, he said. In addition to the felony lynching charge, she also is charged with assault on an officer, a misdemeanor charge.
The college student and her sister, Jessie Mathieson, who lives in Montreal, said the felony lynching charge sounds bizarre to them. The word, used more commonly to describe public executions by a mob, carries weight in America, they said. Those executions, often by hanging, were a tool used in the pre-Civil Rights-era South to intimidate African Americans and minority groups.
“I was really confused,” Jessie Mathieson said when she learned what Janet had been charged with. “She explained that it’s been reworked into the legal system, when somebody interferes with police. In my opinion, it’s a twisting of the justice system to use it for people fighting for migrant rights.”
Janet Mathieson said if she is convicted of a felony crime, it will have serious consequences, including the likely loss of her full college scholarship and a possible jail sentence. The group aims to put pressure this week on the district attorney’s office to drop the charges, with the help of a letter-writing campaign, an online petition and a telephone call drive.
So far, nearly 500 people have signed the online petition since it was created last week. Janet Mathieson said she is heartened by the support they’ve been getting, as well as the support she has seen for the plight of immigrants.
“People are tirelessly working across the country to support these economic refugees, taking them into their homes, sending supplies and resources, trying to create a welcoming environment,” Mathieson said.
She said that as a child and teenager she was supported by the community when her own family was going through hard times and felt she needed to go to Murrieta to help the immigrants.
“Especially as someone with white privilege and American citizenship privileges, I have to be out there, even though I was targeted by the police,” Mathieson said. “I am less likely to face as severe repercussions as people who do not have white privilege.”
For more photographs from the protest, visit www.desertsun.com/picture-gallery/news/2014/07/04/immigration-protests-in-murrieta/12238009/.