COLORADO SPRINGS — It was an hour before midnight on July 22 when a cop knocked on the door of local Black Lives Matter activist Patricia Cameron. She was asleep at home with her 8-year-old son. The officer called out her name and asked her to come outside. Cameron wasn't dressed, so the cop told her to put on some clothes—he had something for her to sign.
For the past four years Cameron has lived in the small, hippy-dippy mountain town of Manitou Springs just outside Colorado's second-largest city. She’s a vocal presence in the local media and runs a blog and a Twitter feed where she discusses topics she feels get ignored in Colorado Springs, a very white, heavily Republican Christian-conservative military city. As a young black woman, she says her encounters with police in the area haven’t always gone well. She’s filed at least one complaint against officers here.
“I was petrified,” she says when she found a uniformed cop at her door at 11:00 at night. The name of Sandra Bland, a young black woman who was found dead July 13, hanging from a trash bag noose in a Texas jail cell days after a traffic stop, flashed through her mind. In the hallway of Cameron's apartment building, the officer told her he was there to serve her with something, and handed her what looked like a ticket. He asked her to sign it, saying it had to do with an incident on July 4. The document was an arrest summons accusing her of fourth degree arson.
Two weeks prior, the single mom, local political activist and EMT had organized an Independence Day public burning of a Confederate flag in a local park as a form of peaceful protest. Online, photos had been spreading of accused killer Dylan Roof posing with Confederate flags before police say he carried out his attack on nine black parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. In announcing her plans days before the event, Cameron told a local alt-weekly reporter the demonstration was “simply us getting together and reiterating the fact that black lives in fact matter.” She'd alerted the local police department about what she’d planned to do, tagging them in a post on Facebook, though a police spokesperson says the department never saw it. The police chief had also gotten an anonymous email about the event. (Weeks prior, the county sheriff's office had been on alert when a local biker club held a pig roast to protest the Islamic holiday of Ramadan.)
Not many people showed up on the day Cameron and a handful of others held their flag burning under a park pavilion that doesn’t allow barbecuing. There, she squirted lighter fluid on a large Confederate flag, someone else lit it, and a third man held the pole as the flag burned on a charcoal grill. With an American flag bandana covering her nose and mouth, Cameron clapped as others waved signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Who is burning black churches?” The local paper dispatched a summer intern to the scene. A video went up on YouTube. Some local TV stations carried the news.
Now, nearly three weeks later, an officer was standing in Cameron’s hallway asking her to sign an arrest summons that accused her of arson. She was not formally arrested and taken to jail. “I was confused,” she says about how it all went down, especially so late at night—and so long after the very public incident.
Manitou Springs Police spokeswoman Odette Saglimbeni says an officer showing up late at night to issue an arrest summons isn’t common for the department.
“It sort of happened to be that time of night when it happened,” she told The Daily Beast about Cameron’s late-night wake-up call. Officers, she said, might have been preoccupied during the rest of the day with other duties. “They were just not able to get out there until that time.”
As for why it took nearly 20 days for the cops to contact Cameron, Saglimbeni said the police had conducted a “pretty extensive investigation” after seeing video of the flag burning. While officers might have known the demonstration was happening that day, a large structure fire nearby attracted their attention, and no police were at the park when the flag went up in flames. Trying to identify all the people involved also took time, she said, and the police wanted to make sure they had everything in order.
Under state law, fourth degree arson in Colorado 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.”
The charge can be a felony or a misdemeanor; Cameron was charged with the later.
“The situation posed a risk of danger to the property and citizens of Manitou Springs, as there were multiple people in the area,” reads a July 22 news release from the Manitou Springs Police Department. 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.”
Camerons arrest “has nothing to do with what whatever it was she was trying to get across,” Saglimbeni said. “We’re just looking at the safety of anyone around there, and city property as well. Those flames got pretty big pretty quick.”
For her part, Cameron has left town for a stint after what she called “negative attention” following her arrest. She isn’t commenting on her involvement with the flag burning, but she spoke with The Daily Beast about the way her local police conducted her late-night arrest.
“It freaks me out that they can show up late at night outside my house,” she says. “I kind of felt like … in this day in age, and the attention on all cops, you might want to mind your Ps and Qs when it comes to your interactions with the public.”
“I definitely think they were trying to intimidate me,” she said.