On Protests in San Luis Obispo

Photo by Diego Rivera (Mustang News)

Let’s start with what many of us can agree on. Young people and people of color are motivated, energized and passionate over combating systemic racism, police brutality and misconduct. In our predominantly white county, a group of protests and organizations have successfully started a conversation on race and how SLO County, like every other county in this state and across the nation, should address racial inequality in their respective communities.

Right now, in SLO County, there is a clear deviation from the plainly stated purposes and goals that Black Lives Matter organizers have presented. But there are a number of reasons why protests are happening here.

SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson delivered remarks to a North San Luis Obispo County Tea Party meeting on July 6 that condemned the “violent protests” of the Black Lives Matter movement and characterized protests as a takeover of neighborhoods and communities. When he had an opportunity to clarify that he was only condemning the violent aspects of protests that veer away from the movement’s core message, Parkinson doubled down, saying there was no endgame or purpose of the protests “other than destruction.”

In June, Parkinson speculated that the suspect involved in a Paso Robles shooting spree in Paso Robles, in which four officers were injured, was motivated by recent protests. The suspect, 26-year-old Mason James Lira, had a history of mental illness that predated the protests. Lira’s father stated his son had no particular animus toward law enforcement and believed he was “special agent or a soldier and may believe he is under attack or in a war zone.” According to law enforcement sources, there was no evidence Lira was motivated by protests to conduct the shooting. Parkinson never walked back his initial assertions about the suspect’s motive.

While he hasn’t been as overt in his commentary on the Black Lives Matter movement as the Sheriff, SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow has come under fire for his overtly partisan conduct. Dow has often weighed in on local issues that oftentimes fall outside the purview of his duties. But on July 21, Dow weighed in on the San Luis Obispo protest once protesters marched onto Highway 101. He called for the highway to be stopped because it was “unlawful and highly dangerous.” Technically, he was right.

Yet Dow was seen at a Fourth of July event in Paso Robles, declaring that his office would not enforce state anti-coronavirus measures against individuals who continue to hold indoor faith-based gatherings. Declaring SLO a “sanctuary county,” Dow imposed his religious beliefs on a county that remains as vulnerable to “highly dangerous” COVID-19 spikes and outbreaks as everywhere else. Medical professionals and the Center for Disease Control specifically caution against indoor gatherings of any kind. Though Dow later clarified that he was specifically taking exception to prohibitions against churchgoers singing, his initial remarks specifically addressed indoor faith-based gatherings in general.

There are certainly valid reasons for protests. Of course, reasons vary by community.

But when the focus should be on comments and positions made by elected officials and law enforcement, SLO County residents tend to focus on how the protesters are protesting. Here’s why.

On July 21, 20-year-old local activist Tianna Arata was arrested by San Luis Obispo police on charges of participation in a riot, unlawful assembly, conspiracy, unlawful imprisonment and resisting arrest. The arrest came after Arata led a protest that ended up making its way onto Highway 101. According to the SLOPD, Arata communicated to police that the protest would be peaceful and that a protest on the highway was not discussed. The District Attorney has not yet decided on whether or not those charges would be pursued by his office.

While they were on the highway, protesters reportedly damaged the hood of a passenger vehicle where a four-year-old child was inside and was hit with shattered glass. Police say a protester hit the rear window of the vehicle with a skateboard. Protesters allege the vehicle in question was attempting to run them over and the driver was shouting profanities at them. California Highway Patrol released photos of the suspect they claim attacked the vehicle with his skateboard. The photos provided showed an unidentified young male wearing a mask, break-dancing on the street during Arata’s march.

You could hear a chanting in the background of this video: “No justice, no peace. Take it to the streets and fuck the police.” It looked a lot like a party more than a protest or a march.

The protest also included protesters heckling people eating outside of restaurants. Earlier the day she was arrested, Arata and protesters marched down the street, yelling, “Fuck your comfort!” at people dining outside of restaurants.

By early August, one business was singled out by protesters, who marched around Guiseppe’s Italian Restaurant in San Luis Obispo after learning the business made a $3,384 campaign contribution to Sheriff Parkinson in March 2018. Protesters noted the contribution was made more than a year after the public learned about the controversial, gruesome death of 36-year-old Andrew Holland that occurred inside the county jail and under Parkinson’s leadership. Holland, who suffered from schizophrenia, was taken from his solitary confinement cell and strapped him naked to a restraint chair for 46 hours.

Let’s be honest: throughout our history as a nation, the most recognized and lauded civil rights protests are ones that are serious, solemn and focused on the mission. It’s true that at the time, those protests were considered unpopular. But as society evolved over time, so did the appreciation Americans had for them.

Right now, protests in SLO County don’t exhibit those factors.

Though I’m sure we’ll see history look back on protests happening nationwide and recognize them by impact and scale alone, but I’m not so confident that protests happening here would be part of that narrative.

The fact is: in our modern history, SLO County has not been an area known for people of color experiencing police brutality. And since our county is predominantly white and sugarcoated in white privilege, there is a significant lack of emotional resonance and relation to the Black experience. As such, other than Parkinson, Dow and how they’ve framed the conversation on race through a narrow-focused partisan prism, there is no clear opposition. If anything, the local BLM movement is reacting to the reactions of community leaders who don’t understand them, which is addressing a problem but not the root of the problem. And instead of helping them understand, protesters have continued to fuel misconceptions about the movement by how they’ve conducted themselves.

The late Congressman John Lewis was only 25 years old — merely five years older than Tianna Arata — when he marched shoulder-to-shoulder with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders marched for five days and 54 miles from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1965.

When he locked arms and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the giants, Lewis demonstrated his commitment to solidarity against racial inequality and segregation. When Lewis was beaten and gassed by Alabama state troopers in March 7, 1965, he didn’t reciprocate the violence. That was an intentional move by the nonviolent Freedom Riders to highlight who the violent aggressors and oppressors were in clear contrast. Through their words and actions of civil disobedience, they were able to effectively — and oftentimes painfully — able to communicate what the issues were.

Reasons for protest could be traced back to centuries-long oppression of Black people throughout our country’s history. But one of the primary drivers that sparked protests were “Jim Crow” laws that were specifically designed to marginalize Black people and separate them from white people. These laws were created, adopted and enacted in spite of the 14th Amendment, which gave Black people equal protection under the law and the 15th Amendment, which gave Black people the right to vote. Jim Crow laws were clear and codified racism. There was clear opposition.

There was a methodology to those protests that historians and future generations could reference, appreciate, learn from, and apply in real-time. Protesters organized the successful Monterey bus boycott (1955–56) after Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat in the “colored section” of the bus to a white passenger. In 1960, protesters organized “sit-ins” in Greensboro, North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee inside establishments that refused to serve people of color. In each event, the two parties in dispute and the underlying problems being contested were clearly identified.

Obviously, times were different then and the ways protests are conducted have changed as well. But in every successful protest we’ve seen from that era, the common thread is a mission-driven focus that made racists and segregationists uncomfortable by inconvenience. The people being inconvenienced were ones that were specifically meant to be inconvenienced.

But in SLO County, we see protests being held almost daily by various organizers for “Black lives” — for a slogan, an idea that’s not fully fleshed out within the context of our county. Residents acknowledge and recognize the inconvenience of these frequent protests. But the local conversation doesn’t seem to move past residents expressing their personal grievances over how inconvenienced they are about protests and protesters mocking them for doing so. It’s a tit-for-tat that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. In that sense, it really does feel like there’s no endgame.

And some people who get inconvenienced by protests may be supportive of BLM and they get unjustly ensnared. For instance, when protesters marched onto Highway 101 and blocked traffic, every driver on that stretch of highway was impacted. And no matter what our political views are, everyone can relate to the exasperation of getting stuck in traffic. I’m sure that many of us don’t readily associate traffic with a large gathering of people standing on a highway. With an unprecedented pandemic causing an unprecedented public health crisis, it’s more imperative than ever to keep roads and freeways open to paramedics and emergency services. The zone of inconvenience is much larger than the targeted zones we’ve seen from successful protests in decades past.

But the following is also true: The protests are largely peaceful and orderly. With the noted exception of the July 21 protest in San Luis Obispo, none of the protests stand out from the rest as far as controversy. But when protesters become aggressive toward individuals and local businesses, they receive the kind of attention they likely didn’t bargain for. The reasons why protests are being held get lost in the noise.

Within that noise, we hear chatter from predominantly white locals who believe most if not all the protesters are Marxists, anarchists, looters and domestic terrorists. These sentiments are echoed, promoted and retweeted by the President of the United States with reckless abandon. To them, it’s not about Black Lives Matter. It’s always about something else like Blue Lives Matter (supporting law enforcement) or protecting businesses with armed men carrying assault rifles on rooftops.

And the conversation they have is almost always about how inconvenienced they are by the protests and how those protests are a distraction from the issues they believe in. I find this to be a subtle form of racism because, to them, the conversation isn’t about racial injustice. Rather, it’s about supporting institutions that make them feel safe. These institutions happen to be ones known for systemically justifying the injustice.

They constantly and consistently latch onto the more bombastic elements of protests to push their narrative, but rarely does the discussion pivot to one about race or prejudice.

While it’s true that some of the protesters are making it easier for naysayers to find comfort in their “inconvenienced” narrative, the protests have successfully brought out the deeply rooted bile and prejudice in our community. The resentment toward people of color and diverse voices is no longer closeted. Rather, resentment is now coded in the form of diversionary topics. Let’s not talk about Black Lives Matter because that means we have to address it. To them, it’s more convenient to change the subject. To them, it’s more comforting to vilify what they refuse to fully understand and people who make it difficult to be understood.

We’re also in a precarious situation that’s reflective of the current state of our country. We’re in the throes of a deadly pandemic. Millions of Americans are struggling and experiencing unprecedented hardship. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives to the coronavirus. Take the usual political banter and turn up the heat. People are itching for a fight. There have been a number of specific threats against protesters communicated on social media daily. The most common threat I’ve seen are from residents musing about confronting protesters with firearms. I’ve seen more of my fair share of residents opposing the BLM movement, relishing in violent fantasies about protesters that would make the most stoical psychologists cringe.

Because of the pandemic and people are staying home, there’s more time for them to incubate that vilification.

It looks like the Black Lives Matter movement in SLO County is still trying to figure out where they stand in our local dynamic and how to communicate their positions. And they need to understand that they have a ways to go before their advocacy becomes an effective wrecking ball of nonviolence against decades of status quo in our county. If they want change, they have to be receptive to making changes for themselves. Otherwise, their pursuit for change won’t be as effective in the long run.

If BLM doesn’t learn to adjust and take note from successful protests of decades past, they could very well set themselves on a trajectory to a future where generations worth of hard work advancing civil rights could fall to the wayside along with America as a social experiment.

Marketing entrepreneur and columnist from Morro Bay, California.

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