Sage Smudge Lady v. Donald Trump: Case Dropped, Lawsuit Planned

Update: The case against Josie Valadez Fraire, who was taken into custody and cited during a July 1 demonstration against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (see our previous coverage below), has been dropped.

However, the controversy isn't over. Valadez Fraire says she's going to issue a formal complaint against the officers who rousted her while taking part in the traditional practice of smudging — in this instance, burning sage to purify the area. The self-described Sage Smudge Lady is also planning to file a lawsuit over the incident, which she sees as going "beyond me as an individual and a violation of my rights. This really was an attack on our community and on indigenous spirituality."

As we've reported, Valadez Fraire had been smudging for a considerable stretch of time without incident when a scuffle broke out between protesters and supporters outside the Colorado Convention Center, where Trump was appearing as part of the Western Conservative Summit. Amid the confusion, police suddenly focused on Valadez Fraire. The sage smudge was taken from her and extinguished in the street, and she was handcuffed and led away amid passionate complaints from the crowd, as seen in a video also shared here. The cuffs were subsequently removed, but she was cited for disobeying a lawful order; she'd been told to put out the sage, then tried to explain that doing so in a respectful way was more complicated than that.

In advance of an August 1 hearing in the matter, Valadez Fraire received conflicting information; a motion to dismiss item and a reminder to show up to court as scheduled arrived in the mail on the same day. So on Monday, after consulting with her attorney, she headed to the Denver courthouse along with a large group of supporters — so many that they filled the hearing room, she notes.

But before the proceedings could get under way, Valadez Fraire was called into the hallway by a representative of the city attorney's office. "She said, 'I'm not even sure why you're here, because this got dismissed by the judge already,'" Valadez Fraire recalls. "She told me, 'You're free to go.'"

The dismissal didn't disappoint Valadez Fraire. After all, that was the outcome for which she had hoped. But, she says, "I wanted the opportunity to speak to someone about what happened. I've talked with my legal counsel about how sometimes they just dismiss things to brush them under the rug or minimize their impact, and it was really quick — like, 'We've washed our hands of it.'"

The case was tossed, Valadez Fraire points out, "because they said there were no legal grounds for any kind of a conviction. I think they realized that this was done in an unlawful way and if they were to pursue it, they would have had a lot of hard work to try to convince a judge that there was any kind of wrongdoing on my part."

That said, she doesn't accuse the officers in question of knowing in advance that the case against her wouldn't hold up. "I think they just reacted in the moment — but they were negligent about protecting and serving the people, which is what they're supposed to do. They didn't do their job, pretty simply, and I think they knew they were going to be able to get away with it regardless. So to have to wait a month, with community members demanding that we get answers, and then to have it be so easily dismissed is frustrating."

To get some accountability, Valadez Fraire says she's going to file a formal complaint against the officers and is looking into a lawsuit: "We're talking about that as a community — what it will look like and what outcomes we're seeking."

In the meantime, she maintains that "there's so much ignorance around our community, and the law does not protect us. I think this was a very active attack, a very ignorant attack, and an attack that is not easily swallowed by my community. And we really need to bring it to light."

Continue for our previous coverage.

Original post, 5:37 a.m. July 7: When recent CU Boulder graduate Josie Valadez Fraire made plans to take part in a July 1 demonstration against Donald Trump, the featured attraction for the Western Conservative Summit at the Colorado Convention Center, she expected merely to add her voice to those of fellow protesters unsettled by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

But before the day was done, she'd been detained and handcuffed by Denver police in full view of a throng chanting "Let her go! Let her go!" — after which she was cited for refusing to obey a lawful order.

Her alleged offense? Using the traditional practice of smudging — burning sage, in this case — to purify an area she saw as fouled by the words and deeds of Trump and his rabid followers, who were also on hand in force.

Her actions have earned Valadez Fraire a new nickname: the Sage Smudge Lady. It's a moniker she's embracing as a way of highlighting what in her view was an enormous overreaction on the part of the cops — not to mention the troubling environment that's sprung up around the controversial real-estate tycoon.

"There was a lot of negative energy in that space," Valadez Fraire says, "and I absolutely think that Donald Trump and his campaign have fueled that negativity and given folks an excuse to display that hatred."

Valadez Fraire, who identifies as indigenous and Xicana, notes that smudging has a variety of purposes depending on ceremonies and circumstances — "but smudging sage is specifically for purifying energies and removing toxic energies from a space or a person or an event. You can smudge people to remove toxic energies from their immediate space or larger areas, but you can also smudge to bless and protect the folks who are present."

Smudging is a regular part of her life. "I smudge my room and myself most every morning," she reveals — and after doing so early on the day of Trump's appearance, "I just thought, 'I've purified my space and purified myself and done reflection and prayer. But even though the space I was going to wouldn't necessarily invalidate that purification, it wasn't purified like I was. So I decided to take my smudge stick and my sage with me.

"I'd just gotten a new bundle of sage from L.A.," she continues. "It was pretty large, and I thought, 'Even if I take it to the protest and I'm smudging for hours, I'll still have plenty. It'll be fine.'"

It was, at first. Upon her arrival at the convention center, Valadez Fraire joined the protesters, including representatives from the Denver chapter of ADAPT, inspired by disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski, whom Trump was accused of mocking a few months back.

According to Valadez Fraire, she smudged for a long period of time in this setting.

A number of Trump supporters made nasty comments about the practice, with at least one accusing her of "witchcraft," she says.

However, she stresses that her actions took place in full view of multiple Denver police officers assigned to crowd-control duties at the event, and none of them told her to stop.

That made sense to her, because she didn't see the smudging as endangering those present in any way. She likens the burning sage to the tip of a lighted cigarette or marijuana joint, both of which she saw at the demonstration, and while the smudge stick produced smoke, she received no complaints from those around her.

Then, suddenly, everything changed.

"A fight broke out, I think between a Trump supporter and a Trump protester," she says, "and police started putting up barricades around the street. And then a police officer picked me out of the crowd and started to grab me, telling me to put out my fire, to stop the burning of my sage.

"I tried to explain to her that there was no fire there and I couldn't just put it out. It's not like a candle. You can't just blow it out, and it was basically not possible for me to put it out in a way that was appropriate and respectful to our traditions."

As seen in a video of the incident on view below, these words didn't have much of an impact on the officers involved.

"They proceeded to handle me pretty roughly," Valadez Fraire says. "One of them put my hands behind my back and another officer was holding me very tightly, telling me I was going to get arrested.

"He ripped the sage out of my hand, and I didn't see what he did with it. But in the video, you can see that he took it to the side of the street and crushed it, which was the most disheartening thing to watch. When we smudge, we have to put out the sage in an appropriate way, and obviously, that wasn't the appropriate way. It was incredibly disrespectful."

After that, Valadez Fraire says, she was handcuffed and placed alongside a squad car, where she was photographed amid more threats of arrest from as many as four officers simultaneously. In fact, she admits to thinking that she actually had been busted for quite some time.

Eventually, some of the cops drifted away, leaving her with a female officer who belatedly agreed to remove the handcuffs — but not before asking a question that struck Valadez Fraire as completely unexpected.

"She said, 'If I take these off, will I have to worry about my personal safety?'" Valadez Fraire recounts. "And I just looked at her, because that was beyond me. I was with peaceful protesters for hours upon hours, and if the police's personal safety was at risk, I'm sure something would have happened before that. And besides, I was worried about my own safety.

"I was nervous and fearful, praying, 'Please don't let me be harmed,' because with incidents like these, you never know what might happen, and at any moment, one of the officers could pull out a gun. So I had to quickly assess, 'What are the risks? Are my actions going to perpetuate these actions? Or are there ways to prevent that kind of outcome?' It was a scary moment for me."

The other anti-Trump forces were definitely getting riled up by then, Valadez Fraire says, and she believes this reaction may have convinced the officer to give her a ticket and release her back into the crowd. "She acted like she was doing me a favor by not arresting me and putting me in the police vehicle. But I think that's why it didn't escalate further."

Not that she gives law-enforcement a pass just because they eased off before more violence could erupt. "The police were exerting their power, or their perceived power, in ways that were inappropriate and harmful," she feels. "And I also think they found me to be an easy target. I think racism was at play, and I also think there was a huge lack of consciousness around indigenous practices. Folks viewed smudging as something to be feared instead of a spiritual practice that was about purifying the space."

On August 1, Valadez Fraire is due in court. She plans to plead not guilty and is in touch with a legal defense team.

An online petition is also in the works. But even before its launch, she's been cheered by the support she's received thus far.

"I've had a lot of folks reaching out to me since the incident, asking me what they can do to help," she allows. "I tell them, 'Keep the momentum going about this. Keep sharing about it and talking about it on social media.'

"If folks are able and willing, call in to the Denver police and express to them why they think this was wrong and tell them the community does not agree with their actions," she goes on. "And if folks are able to come to the court date and demonstrate that they were outraged by what happened, that would be amazing."

Look below to see a brief video showing the moment when Valadez Fraire was detained, followed by a personal statement labeled both with her name and "Sage Smudge Lady."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts