Patricia Cameron and her 8-year-old son were both asleep last Wednesday night when there was a knock at their door.
“It was 11 at night, and I’m a single mother alone in my house,” she told The Colorado Independent. “It freaked me out.”
She went to the door and asked, “Who’s there?” A police officer stepped in front of the peephole.
“Open the door, Patricia,” she remembered the cop saying.
So she put on clothes, opened the door and got the news: She was charged with arson for burning a Confederate flag in a neighborhood park over Independence Day weekend.
More than 20 days earlier, Cameron gave police a heads-up about the protest by tagging them in a Facebook post. She organized publicly on social media and in the local alt-weekly. She promoted the event as a peaceful demonstration against white supremacy.
— ThisIsSoCO (@ThisIsSoCO) June 29, 2015
Cameron has a long history of criticizing Colorado Springs media and law enforcement. She started the blog ThisIsSoCo to highlight underrepresented voices in the Springs, a predominantly white and conservative city. This spring, she filed a complaint against an officer for harassing her at a traffic stop.
She told The Colorado Independent her activism was spurred by feeling invisible in her community.
“As a black woman in Colorado Springs, you don’t have a population of people who resemble what you see in the mirror,” she said. “Protest gives you a voice of some sort.”
The flag has taken on renewed scrutiny in public life since photographs of Dylann Roof donning Confederate paraphernalia surfaced and went viral. Roof is the young white man accused of murdering nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina last month. Across the country, people called for the symbol to be taken off of store shelves and statehouse flag poles, and activists burned Confederate flags in public. At the same time, black churches also smoldered.
When Cameron announced her plan to burn the flag, she was bombarded with both hateful and supportive words.
“I’ve been called the ugliest names,” Cameron said, “But it’s almost like it just rolls off me.”
She was pleasantly surprised that neighbors who admitted to having flown the flag promised to defend her right to protest. An outpouring of support on social media also helped her feel confident.
On the day of the protest, around 20 people showed up to Soda Springs Park in Manitou Springs. Cameron wore an American flag bandana over her face and poured lighter fluid on the Confederate flag in a grill under a pavilion. An intern from The Gazette was the only reporter present. His original article published that day said that Cameron doused the flag then threw a match on it.
A video later put on YouTube shows that Cameron did not light the flag. The Gazette retracted its claim, but the public already believed she torched it.
No cops or firemen were dispatched to the scene. The fire was out in a matter of seconds.
Fast-forward 20 days later to Cameron getting served. She said she woke up the next morning to a flood of texts, tweets and messages. Police had sent a press release to local media, so news of her charges was everywhere.
“The situation posed a risk of danger to the property and citizens of Manitou Springs, as there were multiple people in the area,” the release states. The department “strongly supports citizens who wish to employ their first amendment rights,” but “would urge those who employ those rights, to do so in a safe manner.”
Officer Odette Saglimbeni told The Colorado Independent that “according to our chief [Joe Ribeiro], we’re not releasing any reports until she goes to court.” Information related to the incident or the charges won’t be made public to “preserve the integrity of the investigation.”
Mark Silverstein of the ACLU said, “It’s absurd to withhold the police reports in a case like this. There’s no way it would interfere with prosecution.”
The Supreme Court has twice ruled that flag desecration is protected as free speech under the First Amendment.
“Of course burning the flag to express an idea is protected,” Silverstein said. “But there are legitimate laws that regulate when and where people can light fires.”
In Colorado, fourth degree arson is when “a person who knowingly or recklessly starts or maintains a fire or causes an explosion, on his own property or that of another, and by so doing places another in danger of death or serious bodily injury or places any building or occupied structure of another in danger of damage.”
It can be a felony or a misdemeanor. Cameron was charged with a misdemeanor because she allegedly endangered property not people.
“It’s possible that the decision to enforce the statute in a case where there was no harm to person or property is a disguised punishment for the ideas expressed in the act,” Silverstein said.
The idea that Cameron’s arson charges could be a disguised form of punishment is not without precedent. There’s a long history of law enforcement using covert tactics to surveil, infiltrate, discredit, criminalize or otherwise deter social movements.
Cameron said she can’t say much about what went down in Soda Springs Park on July 4. She’ll save it for her day in court. But she promised not to lie low.
Photo by Steve Carlin, used with permission.