After assaulting bystanders and trained legal observers with rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and tear gas during recent protests, San Jose now faces blowback for arresting a well-known community activist on obscure, questionably applied charges.
It happened on June 5—a week after the city’s first protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Night had fallen. Most of the several thousands of people who participated in an NAACP-led “die-in” to memorialize the black lives lost to police violence had already left.
Dr. Sharat Lin—a 72-year-old author, speaker and longtime volunteer at the San Jose Peace and Justice Center—stayed behind with what looked like about 2,000 other protesters. The Friday evening demonstration was one of the most peaceful and relatively police-free since the protests kicked off in San Jose.
Heartened by the turnout, Lin decided to celebrate with an impromptu light show on the wall that stands just to the right of the City Hall rotunda. He pulled out a laser pointer and directed it to the concrete surface, where the red beam danced in circular motions.
About a minute later, cops disguised as protesters emerged to tell him not to point the light at the sky, where a police helicopter circled overhead. Lin says he complied, returning the laser pointer to a collection of various-sized flashlights socked away in his backpack. About 20 minutes passed before SJPD came back—this time in uniform.
From a cluster of cop cars flashing their red-and-blue lights, a row of about 10 officers who parted the crowd as they made a beeline to Lin.
“I thought they were trying to clear the plaza,” Lin recounts in an interview. “So, I thought ‘OK, looks like it’s time to leave,’ and started getting ready to go.”
Police had other plans.
Lin says one officer grabbed his arm, ordered him to let go of his backpack and declared him under arrest. When Lin asked why, he says they told him they’d tell him later.
Police cuffed him, ducked him into a cruiser and transported him to a heavily militaristic-looking staging area at the SAP Center. During the two-hour wait at the stadium, Lin says he overheard cops chatting condescendingly about protesters, wondering why they wouldn’t “just go home” or march in another city.
At some point during the long wait, Lin says an officer finally told him the reason for his arrest: endangering an aircraft. He says they didn’t provide him a penal code number.
Lin says he felt aghast by the overreaction. Apparently, they didn’t care about the fact that he never once pointed the laser beam skyward and immediately put away the device after one warning. Lin says his light show was meant to be “artistic, colorful and peaceful” and maintains that it “did not threaten any aircraft.”
“It seemed to me,” he says, “like they were trying to find reasons to arrest people.”
Next stop: the Main Jail, where officers booked Lin—neglecting to write the charge on his pre-booking sheet—and placed him in a holding room, where he spent the night.
The next morning, around the same time a Santa Clara County Superior Court magistrate reviewed his case and set bail at $0, officers showed up again—not to release him, per court’s orders, but to move him to another jail. About an hour after he should have been legally freed, Lin arrived at Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, where he remained under lockup for yet another eight hours.
Dr. Lin walked out of Elmwood at 3:15pm on June 6 after spending 17 hours and 45 minutes jailed for a zero-bail, arguably cite-and-release case.
Daniel Mayfield, a lawyer representing Dr. Lin, calls what happened a clear case of unlawful detention. Further, he says the arrest shows how—despite ceasing use of projectiles and tear gas—SJPD continues to intimidate peaceful protesters by using minor offenses as pretext for arrest.
SJPD has yet to comment on the case. “We will look into it and get back to you,” Officer Gina Tepoorten, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in an email today.
Dr. Lin says he finally got to pick up his backpack from SJPD on Thursday, but that police are hanging onto his camera as “evidence.” Evidence of what, though, is unclear, considering that Lin says he was the only one using it and he never took a picture of himself performing the light show.
“They must be on a fishing expedition,” he says. “That’s what it looks like.”