San Luis Obispo (SLO) is a city on the Central Coast of California, with a population of about 45,000 people. SLO is 84 percent white and 2.2 percent Black/African American. The median household income is $71,148 in the county. The county leans more liberal, with 48.9 percent voting Democrat and 40.9 percent voting Republican in the last Presidential election. Cal Poly University, in San Luis Obispo, is the whitest public university in California, and has the lowest percentage of Black students. As of 2017, 54.8 percent of the student body was white and only 0.7 percent was Black. The university has had significant and various racist incidents occur by students in the last few years that caught the communities attention. Since Black Lives Matter protests began nationwide in May, San Luis Obispo has had what most would think is a surprising impact, given these statistics. Six days after the death of George Floyd in June, local Black activist, organizer, and student, Tianna Arata, spoke to the community at a protest organized by local organization, R.A.C.E Matters SLO. Tianna’s speech, in solidarity with the movement, marked the start of an increasingly tumultuous and heated Black Lives Matter movement in SLO.
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This first protest included hundreds marching peacefully downtown, including the SLO Police Chief Deanna Cantrell and two other officers. The second day of the protests were vastly different from the first. Protesters marched through the streets for hours, even blocking Highway 101 in both directions for about 30 minutes. Law enforcement replied to this action by showing up in riot gear, eventually dispersing tear gas, rubber bullets and firecrackers onto the crowd that did not disperse regardless of threats. The protest resulted in the arrest of seven activists and set the tone for the months to come, with the protests getting more and more tense with time. Since then, protests have been organized by local Black activists and organizers, following the lead of Tianna Arata.
Protests continued throughout the city and county weekly, and sometimes daily. Mid-June, the SLO City Council declared racism a public health emergency, which would allow the city to allocate funds to the protests accordingly. The city councilmembers made this decision after meeting and collaborating with local young activists including Arata. Despite this proclamation, the protests continued to get increasingly tense with forceful responses from law enforcement.
On July 6, 2020 SLO county Sheriff Ian Parkinson attended the North County Tea Party meeting as a speaker to address “the current situation with freedom and the covid pandemic as well as threats from the anarchists working our governments and institutions”. Video of the event quickly spread as people watched what Sheriff Parkinson said to the attendees. Parkinson told the attendees that he has “never seen any indication that systemic racism exists in this county” and that the protests and demonstrations “have no purpose other than destruction” and that he “doesn’t get it”. Parkinson’s words came in direct contrast to the SLO city government’s actions around the movement, which validated it with their declaration of racism as a public health emergency. His words clearly showed his, as well as the SLOPDs, stance on the movement, making the relationship between protesters and the police even more contentious. The now deleted video of the event got the attention of local BLM organizers before the planned July 21 protest, likely changing the tone of the protest.
Tianna Arata and fellow activist Melissa Elizalde responded by organizing most of the protest on July 21 around Parkinson’s comments. This protest began with speeches in the park, then a march downtown with around 300 other protesters. The march eventually led to Highway 101 at seven PM, blocking traffic in both directions for nearly an hour. At this point, protests dangerously escalated. While on the highway, a motorist accelerated and hit a protester, with protesters then retaliating on the attack and striking the motorists vehicle. The counter-attacks broke a rear window, which police said shattered onto a four-year old child. Police did not comment on the motorists actions or even acknowledge the events that had led to the smashed window. Instead, they used the incident as a reason to arrest Arata and denounce the movement publicly, attempting to incite fear in the general public against the protesters, despite clear video evidence of the events.
The main victim of this vehicular attack tried to report it to the police at the protest, but was largely shrugged off and referred to, instead, as a suspect, despite the many eyewitnesses supporting the victim. Additionally, as video and photographic evidence show, Arata was clearly far away from this motorist incident and had no reason to be indicted for the crime. The SLO police acted as though the violent motorist was the victim of the situation, and later released an edited video on their Facebook page, showing a separate aggressive vehicle interaction in the downtown area that day. In this video, it was still apparent, at least to most, that the vehicle was harassing the protesters and attempting to injure. In the video, it appears that the vehicle quickly accelerated towards the protesters, hitting one and pulling them onto the hood of the vehicle, while narrowly missing plenty of other protesters. In their Facebook post, police said that they are looking for the driver, as they are a victim of vandalism, and did not comment on the apparent vehicle actions.
On the evening of July 21, as protesters dispersed, the police ambushed Arata and multiple police officers suddenly grabbed her and shoved her into a police car. This forceful interaction was, again, caught on video. It appears that Tianna Arata was not read her Miranda Rights or told what was happening. In addition, her friends and family were not informed of where Tianna was being taken or why she was arrested at all.
Tianna was arrested with a total of eight criminal counts: five felony counts and three misdemeanors. Four of the felony counts for false imprisonment, and one for conspiracy. The three misdemeanor counts were for participating in a riot, resisting or obstructing a peace officer, and unlawful assembly. The police justified the false imprisonment charges through the vehicle incidents as mentioned, arguing that Arata and others blocked cars from getting around them and avoiding the protests. Arata was released from the county jail at about one AM on July 22.
The arrest of Arata led to an immediate outcry from the community, and her story soon gained national attention. #FreeTianna began trending on Twitter, with various high-profile figures sharing her story on Instagram, leading to supporters organizing themselves into the Free Tianna Coalition. This coalition was formed by a local group of organizers with the goal of putting extensive pressure on District Attorney Dan Dow, whose office ultimately decides if Tianna gets charged. Protesters demanded that Dan Dow drop the charges, and spent time organizing virtually and physically, by raising signatures or showing up to protest at the courthouse.
Meanwhile, community opposition has shared support for the police department’s actions, often stating that the protests were not peaceful. Videos of Arata and other protesters dancing on the American flag were spread on Facebook, and often used in arguments to claim the unlawfulness of the protests. Other community members reacted with much more hatred and apparent racism, commenting under news articles of the events with messages such as “If you hate America so much then why don’t you go back to Africa you POS” and “send her to the zoo.” The opposition even organized themselves into a “Rally for our DA Dan Dow, Law Enforcement, First Responders and American Patriotism” on August 27, clearly as a response to the protests and Arata’s case.
Dan Dow filed charges against Arata on September 2, with 13 misdemeanor counts, those being: one count of unlawful assembly, one count of disturbing the peace, six counts of obstruction of a thoroughfare, and five counts of false imprisonment. Although the DA filed more misdemeanor charges against Arata than originally arrested for, he did not charge her with any felony counts, which would have been a much more severe charge. Arata was arraigned in court on September 3. The DA chose to drop the felony charges against Arata, which was a positive for her team, but they did charge her with many misdemeanors.
On September 17, Arata was back in court and did not enter a plea. Instead, her defense team is choosing to challenge all charges and filing a demurrer, arguing that the charges against Arata are unconstitutional and not credible. Arata is next due in court on October 22.
Three young Black men, Amman Asfaw, Marcus Montgomery and Joshua Powell, also had charges filed against them by Dow on October 16. These three men were added as co-defendants to Arata’s case, and all are being charged with one to three misdemeanors. The three men, as well as Arata, attended their first court appearance together on October 22. Each of the new defendants requested more time to review their charges with their attorney’s before entering pleas.
Many do not believe it is a coincidence that Dow chose to charge three Black males, despite there being hundreds of white protesters in attendance. Outrage has continued to grow, specifically directed at Dow for these targeted arrests. Hundreds showed up to the SLO courthouse on October 22 in support of Arata, Asfaw, Montgomery, and Powell, with most of the speakers focusing their time on addressing Dow’s actions. This court date and rally was held after a motorist from the highway blockade on July 21, who is considered a victim in the case, came forward on October 21 saying that they disagree with such a designation, as well as accusing the DA’s Office Investigator of inappropriate questioning. The next arraignment hearing is scheduled for December 2.
Since the events, there have been countless arguments and misleading messages about what has occurred and what is justified. To start, people have continuously debated whether the protests were violent or nonviolent. Opponents to the movement and protests have repeatedly argued that the protests were violent; pointing to the case of the car window getting smashed, especially as it allegedly involved a child. Opponents also argue that highway protests endangered lives. Some have even said that protesters in the street deserve to be hit, with blunt statements like, “Block the freeway get run over. Pretty much it.” Some have even spread more disturbing messages, such as “Put the snow plow on the truck now. Don’t have time for idiots that play in the street. I don’t brake for butterflies! Try me”, and going so far as to call the protesters “terrorists”.
It appears that community members have found themselves either strongly in support of or opposition to the protests, leading to significant community unrest. Local news articles are riddled with hundreds of comments from community members arguing over the case and events, as well as over the police and Black Lives Matters purpose.
Though the protesters intentions were not violent, nor were their actions, many locals took these uncomfortable actions as violent; but uncomfortability is not violence and being inconvenienced is not a violent act. Being stuck in traffic so that protesters can gain necessary attention to their cause is not an act of violence. Damage to property is not the same as violence to human beings. Humans are worth more than a car window. violence is Black people getting killed at the hands of police. Violence is trying to hit people with your car or threatening to harm people. Violence is taking your anger out on a young Black woman trying to fight for her and others lives and rights.
Another debated topic on the protests in SLO is whether the charges are at all justified or whether this is just an intimidation tactic by the police. Opponents argue that the charges are justified as they blocked the freeways and roads, leading to multiple tense and violent incidents. People argue that they would have no problem with the protests if they stayed out of the roads, but since they went into the roads they should be charged. They argue that the incidents are Tianna’s fault, regardless of her direct involvement, and therefore justify her being charged.
Arata, as well as Asfaw, Montgomery and Powell, are being singled out by the criminal justice system in San Luis Obispo, regardless of the hundreds of others that protested alongside them. Their arrests are a direct representation of what the Black Lives Matter protests are all about, Black people being disproportionately targeted and harmed by the police and criminal justice system.
This anti-protest sentiment is largely coming from a place of privilege. The majority of SLO’s white residents have the benefit of not being concerned with the effects of police brutality because it does not affect them; the police continue to serve their interests and protect property over human life. It is not a coincidence that one of the only young Black women, visible to the community and leading the BLM protests, was arrested for crimes she was not involved with. Tianna Arata’s arrest embodies SLOPD’s position on BLM and the inherent reason for protests. The following arrests of Asfaw, Montgomery, and Powell continue to reveal where the police and Dow stand on protecting Black lives. The police chose to put the blame on Arata, Asfaw, Montgomery, and Powell, even altering the timeline and narrative of events to match their desire of quelling the movement. SLOPD was trying to send a message to the community, but it did not work. These arrests have led to national outrage and scrutiny onto small-town SLOPD. The targeted arrests of Arata, Asfaw, Montgomery, and Powell, as well as the ongoing debates within the community, perfectly encapsulate what this movement is all about.
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