By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Attending the California State Fair is an annual tradition for Cynthia Martin and her family, but it turned into a “nightmare” after the Elk Grove mother says her 11-year-old son Elijah was beaten by police last month.
The family attended the fair on a Tuesday that offered free entry for children ages 12 and under and sharply discounted rides. It was while waiting in line for one of those rides that the trouble began, they say. The preteen maintains he was horsing around with the friends he came to the fair with. Cal Expo Police accuse him of trying to steal from nearby vendors and running from the police when they approached him.
“The police terrorized my family and my child,” Martin said. “It is a night that has been scarred and etched in our brains forever.”
Elijah stood quietly outside the main gate of the fairgrounds at Cal Expo on Monday as his mother detailed the ordeal and its aftermath.
“My child is not the same. He would normally be outside playing every day at the park, at the skatepark, enjoying his friends. He has been withdrawn ever since that emotional, traumatizing event with the police department,” Martin said.
A few hours after the press conference, State Fair media director Darla Givens issued a statement.
“We are disappointed about the situation that happened at 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 19. A child, unattended by a parent or guardian, was demonstrating dangerous behavior that put himself and others at risk of severe physical harm, specifically climbing over a safety fence and almost being hit by a roller coaster ride,” the statement reads.
Cal Expo Police said they received notification that Elijah was attempting to steal from vendors. “After a short chase, the boy was detained by Cal Expo Police and a small cut was addressed with a Band-Aid. After short questioning and agreement by him not to return to the fair, the minor was released to his mother without arrest,” the statement continues.
The statement communicates the State Fair’s belief that police “followed all proper policies to quell the situation and keep the minor safe.”
Martin, who said she and her family spent around $1,000 at the fair that night, gave a vastly different version of events. The family said Elijah was engaging in friendly roughhousing with friends, playfully arguing about who would get to sit in the front car of the ride when it was their turn to get on.
According to the family’s attorney, Mark Merin, Elijah’s account saw him being told he couldn’t get on the ride, then waiting for his friends. After walking away, he said, officers started following him and he got scared and ran. That’s when officers tackled him, the young man said.
“He was scared and ran,” said Merin, a civil rights attorney. “They then tackled him, gouged his arm, lacerated his arm, knocked him into a fence and he was bleeding. The people who were watching this, who saw what was happening, were outraged themselves and were screaming, ‘He’s just a child. Leave him alone. Don’t do that.’
“They brought him down by choking him, hands around the neck,” Merin added. “This is from witnesses who saw this. They volunteered these statements and were contacted and we have spoken with many people who have video recordings of what they saw.”
Martin admitted she didn’t see the beginning of the altercation but witnessed the aftermath. She detailed injuries to Elijah’s arms, stomach and hips. Afterwards, she said, the bottom half of his shirt was covered in blood.
“He has visible scars and emotional scars and injuries because of this event,” she said. “They knew that they injured him because they provided first aid before we even made it to Kaiser hospital, where he did receive other treatment for his injuries.”
Martin said she transported several children to the fair who are her son’s neighbors and friends. She said none of these other children, all of whom are White, were treated the way her son was.
“He was the only child that got beaten by the police. The other children that he was horseplaying with in line have blond hair and blue eyes, and brown hair and brown eyes, and light-colored skin. They are not Black. None of those children were touched or assaulted by the officers, only my child.”
Martin is outraged that her minor son was interrogated without a parent present, even though she was there, and that as a minor he was made to sign a no trespassing form.
Officials touted increased security and safety measures for the fair, just back from a two-year, COVID-induced hiatus. They point to a “code of conduct” all fairgoers are expected to abide by.
“These policies are designed to ensure the State Fair is safe for all attendees,” the statement reads. “When these policies are violated, a fairgoer is asked to not return and sign a document agreeing to such.”
Merin is gathering information from the State Fair, including seeking the names of the officers involved. He also is gathering footage of the incident captured on cell phone cameras by multiple witnesses.
Givens said officers don’t wear body cameras, but the State Fair encourages fairgoers with further information to come forward and welcomes any independent review of the incident.
Merin said he already has taken the first initial step toward litigation, alluding to accusations of false arrest, coercion and excessive force.
“If a person is going to be interrogated, they have to be advised that they have a right to be represented,” he said. “They have a right not to speak as anything they say could be used against them. Now, one has to wonder, what did they think an 11-year-old is going to be able to do in terms of his consciousness, whether he can even understand the Miranda warnings, and then voluntarily waive them? It’s outrageous that these officers would think that that was acceptable.”
The young man and his family are being supported by Black Lives Matter Sacramento, Allies of Black Lives Matter Sacramento and the Greater Sacramento NAACP. Speakers at Monday’s press conference called conduct by the officers – Martin recalled at least four being involved – reprehensible.
“There is nothing that validates what they did to him,” said BLM Sacramento leader Tanya Faison. “I don’t care if he was running in between, if he jumped a fence, if he’s running from them, if he’s cutting in line, it does not matter. If it’s horseplay and they don’t like horseplay, then you tell a child, ‘Hey, stop doing that. I’m the police. You need to stop it.’ There’s no reason to tackle a child.
“Do you see how small he is? He’s tiny. There’s nothing that validates that. Nothing.”
Local NAACP President Betty Williams agreed.
“He’s an 11-year-old kid, horseplaying and grown-ass men with guns on their hips took him down. They didn’t take down any of his friends who were White; they took him down. There’s no excuse for that.”
The family wants to see change, Martin said.
“A lawsuit is a vehicle to look at the problem and to try to resolve it if possible,” Merin said, “to bring to the attention of the State Fair and the police what has to change and maybe you get some results through that.”
The family and their attorney said race may have played a factor, speculating that the officers engaged Elijah after profiling him or mistaking him for another young Black male because he fit the same description. It’s suspicious, Merin said.
“If there’s a group of children and only the Black kid is picked out, it raises some questions at least,” he said.