Between organizing protests and meeting with city leadership, Black Lives Matter activist Esabella Bonner penned an open letter to the community reflecting on Santa Cruz’s first annual Black Lives Matter Month this July.
She posted the letter to the website for Blended Bridge, a community group Bonner co-founded with Santa Cruz local Ariana Jones that is focused on spreading civic engagement, education and community empowerment.
“When I heard that Mayor Justin Cummings had declared July 2020 Black Lives Matter Month in Santa Cruz, I was optimistic. I was excited to think of the incredible actions and policies that would come from this declaration,” Bonner wrote in the letter, which several other local organizers also signed. “Unfortunately, the type of actions that we witnessed were not ones of policy, but rather a month fueled with hate-filled incidents across our entire county.”
Bonner went on to detail a string of hate crimes, vandalism and racist encounters in Santa Cruz over the course of the month—including an incident in which she and her sister were attacked while protesting downtown.
The city council took a planned recess in July, putting any policy advancement temporarily on hold.
“I didn’t necessarily have these high expectations, but I thought that they would at least be operating as usual and working to execute some of the policies and plans that I know Mayor Cummings has in the works,” Bonner says. “That was very disappointing in itself.”
We spoke to Bonner about what motivated her to write the letter, what Black Lives Matter Month means to her, and how she finds hope in troubling times.
Why did you choose to shed more light on these incidents?
ESABELLA BONNER: I wanted to highlight that this really was just another month for us. We haven’t seen anything come out of it yet. “Yet” is an important word there, but the month is over and I feel like I have a lot of sadness to reflect on rather than liberating moments for our Black community. So I really wanted to draw attention to what’s going on. We are seeing an uptick in hate crimes, I think partially as a result of the momentum that the movement has right now. Thairie [Ritchie] really says it best, but pressure bursts pipes, and we really are seeing that. We’re seeing the cracks in our community flooding out. So it was important to highlight why we’re still going so strongly right now.
You and your sister were attacked protesting downtown, something you touch on in the letter. Are you comfortable speaking about how you felt when that happened? Were you scared?
I was terrified. I get chills thinking about it … just that unknown of, “Oh my gosh. How far am I going to have to run to get away from her before someone helps me? Or just, what if I trip?” I was genuinely concerned, and when she was hurling threats at me, I left terrified. I was scared for every Black girl that looked like me downtown that day, and I didn’t feel like SCPD took that seriously enough.
In general, do you think that local law enforcement does enough to investigate incidents like this?
It’s a hard question because I can’t speak to what goes on internally, but I can say, knowing folks that have been on the tail end of it—and my sister and I ourselves—I don’t feel like they’re providing enough resources for us to feel supported and taken care of, especially given that it was Black Lives Matter Month. It feels like unless the hate crime is a very specific narrative, they avoid it. They’re also pretty public on their social media and you can see that trend there, too.
Some residents express shock, even disbelief, that racism and hate crimes happen in Santa Cruz. Why do you think there’s that disconnect?
Oh gosh, yeah. That’s something that really bothers me because we all live it. That was a huge reason why I wanted to write the letter as well, because these instances come in so many different forms and on so many different levels. I think it’s important to educate folks so they can see it when it’s happening right before their eyes, not later when they’re reading it, like, “Oh, that was a racist incident that I witnessed, and I didn’t step in or try to stop it.” We need to get rid of the narrative that it doesn’t happen in Santa Cruz, because that is hurting our Black community, and it’s suppressing their stories.
Do you think more symbolic gestures like declaring July as Black Lives Matter Month or hanging flags have a place in the movement? Or do they distract from more concrete, progressive action items and policies?
I really fall in the middle on this one. Someone did bring to my attention that having the Black Lives Matter mural on the ground gives us that tangible item to point to and say, ‘This was your commitment to us.’ So in terms of accountability, I think having something to show: you invested in this and now it’s time to actually invest in our lives, I see that as progressive and I see that as really important. But I also do want to vocalize that sometimes these murals and declarations are purely distraction tactics (for leadership) to buy a little more time.
All of the protests you’ve organized have been peaceful, something you ask of attendees. Why is this important for you?
The peaceful protest narrative is one that has been thrown onto me since the first West Cliff march. I truly believe that it’s unintentionally divisive, and while I’m humbled and honored to have organized a march that aligned with my vision and goals, I do want to be extremely careful in proudly touting this peaceful narrative. I can’t help but feel like pushing this narrative is an attempt to discredit and delegitimize any other forms of protesting—which is dangerous.
By touting my marches as successful simply because they were peaceful, we are reinforcing the notion that there is a proper way to protest. There isn’t. Protests are not meant to be drone sunset photos, they are meant to disturb the status quo and create disruption. I would much rather gauge the success of my events and marches through what folks are able to tangibly learn and take home to continue showing up.
On a personal level, how does it feel having people look to you as a local leader in this movement?
It’s pretty empowering to recognize your calling. I feel like I’m finding my voice and I’m inspiring a lot of others to find their voice. I’ve just been so uplifted by the messages that I receive from people speaking up at open mics at the protests. They all express that they would never do this if they didn’t have this opportunity and space. And these messages, these poems, these essays, they’re so beautiful. They’re so diverse and unique, even within our little Santa Cruz bubble. To me, that’s so inspiring. I feel like everyone just keeps passing the torch back and forth which has been really powerful and really cool.
In light of this uptick in violence and the backlash you mentioned earlier, what motivates you to keep going?
I’m really, really trying to focus on the positives. It’s sad to think that you have to witness worse to get to better—and it bothers me when people vocalize that as a reality—but it does feel like it’s true. This backlash has been motivating for me because people wouldn’t be pushing back if we weren’t disrupting the status quo and we weren’t making changes. Long term, these changes are going to have a positive effect on everyone—even the folks that might have more reservations right now. So I’m really focusing on the fact that we’re doing this for everyone, for our Santa Cruz community as a whole.
Also, being surrounded by such beautiful people. I have honestly, in the last two months, come to know so many amazing people. While I have lost some people who don’t understand what I’m doing, I’ve gained so many more who fully stand by me and see me as the Black woman that I am. So focusing on that is just so inspiring and empowering. So I’m trying hard to stay positive but I do have my days.
What gives you hope right now?
The things that are making me feel the most hopeful are the faces that I’m continuously seeing at every event—local, online and in person. We’ve received so many messages on Blended Bridge with suggestions. The community is active and engaged in ways that I personally feel that we haven’t been before. So to me, that’s really grounding: trying to help provide resources and keep up that momentum of people caring about those that they coexist with.
Any final thoughts?
I would say, just as a shameless plug for Blended Bridge: We’re really working to create an ally empowerment workshop. A lot of folks have come to us saying that some people are not feeling as empowered to continue these conversations. So we’re working hard to create a series that can address folks’ concerns and allow them to have these conversations in a safe space where they can grow, empower one another and keep the momentum going within our ally community.