Earlier this year, activist Brittany Martin was sentenced to four years in prison in South Carolina over comments she made to police during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020. Video footage from the protest shows the mother of four telling police officers, “Some of us gon’ be hurting. And some of y’all gon’ be hurting. We ready to die for this. We tired of it. You better be ready to die for the blue. I’m ready to die for the Black.”
Martin, a racial justice activist who co-founded Mixed Sistaz United to serve unhoused people and register voters, has currently served almost four months in prison since May. She’s due to give birth in November. Advocates and Martin’s legal team are currently fighting for her to be released, or at least receive a lesser sentence, citing the toll of prison on her pregnancy and the fact that she shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place.
“She’s in jail because she talked in America,” Sybil Dione Rosado, Martin’s trial attorney, told the AP. “She’s a dark-skinned Black woman who is unapologetically Black and radical.”
As of July, Martin has reportedly lost 12 pounds while incarcerated; she’s been taken to the hospital eight times due to complications with her pregnancy, twice transported via ambulance. Martin told the AP her body just “can’t get comfortable with the baby” while in prison, where she’s also faced regular threats to her physical safety and wellness. Martin told the outlet she’s been harassed by prison guards and physically attacked by other incarcerated people—Rosado said she saw Martin with scratches on her face and a bloody eye during a recent visit. Martin’s also repeatedly been put in solitary confinement and sent to detention over alleged disobedience to prison guards, and once for not cutting her dreadlocks, which Rosado points out stems from a “racially biased” grooming policy.
Her case raises serious concerns about free speech rights. Martin, whose brother-in-law was killed by police officers who shot him 19 times over a car jacking in 2016, was filmed at the protest, which was sparked by the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, in Sumter, South Carolina, in May 2020. The police officers Martin addressed in the video were clad in full-body riot gear, armed, and on the brink of unleashing tear gas on the crowd—yet they determined that Martin posed the real threat.
Bakari Sellers, a prominent civil rights lawyer and former South Carolina state lawmaker, is set to testify in support of Martin next week. “The fact is you have people who stormed the Capitol, who led to the death of law enforcement, who tried to overturn an election and fracture democracy. And they’re getting two months, three months, six months,” Sellers told the AP. “And Brittany Martin gets four years.” Hundreds of people who were charged with federal crimes over their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection pleaded guilty and successfully sought reduced sentences—many were charged with misdemeanors punishable by no more than a year in prison.
In contrast, a jury acquitted Martin of a charge of inciting a riot and only found her guilty of breaching the peace, which itself is punishable by no more than a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. The jury also never reached a verdict on whether Martin threatened the officers’ lives. Yet, because prosecutors said Martin had breached the peace in a “high and aggravated” manner and “high and aggravated” crimes carry up to 10 years imprisonment, Martin was sentenced to four years. Rosado told the AP that the judge didn’t permit her to explain to the jury how “high and aggravated” charges affect sentencing.
Mistreatment of pregnant people is endemic within the prison system, in which Black women have always been overrepresented and face more severe sentencing. Across the U.S., Black pregnant people experience the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality. In prisons, several states still allow pregnant incarcerated people to be shackled, to the detriment of their health and safety as well as their fetuses’.
Despite reporting that Martin faced criminal charges for hitting her teenage son with her car in 2019 in Iowa, Rosado pointed out that the South Carolina judge didn’t mention the Iowa incident at all. (Martin’s son died in January this year, and her family is still grieving the loss.) Rosado argues Martin is imprisoned and separated from her young children solely over comments to police.
“It’s been times in this prison where I have started giving up for a second, mentally and emotionally,” Martin told the AP. She continued, “I had to think about my babies. I had to think about my love for them, which is why I’m even in this situation.” A hearing to reconsider Martin’s sentencing is set for Sept. 12.