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Hundreds Demand Change at Santa Cruz Juneteenth March

Young organizers energize Black Lives Matter movement locally

Crowds marched through Santa Cruz to City Hall on Friday in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

On Friday, hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered for the youth-led ‘Juneteenth to Allegiance’ event, speaking out against police brutality and systemic racism in Santa Cruz and standing in solidarity with the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement. 

The event began with a march from the Louden Nelson Community Center to the steps of City Hall, where members of the Oceloyotl people of Castroville preceded speakers with a traditional dance and blessing for the land. 

“They’re not just dances, they are prayers. They are moving prayers,” said Julissa Reyes of the Oceloyotl. “Today we are being called here to protect. That call of protection is for our Black relatives.” 

The protest was organized by 24-year-old Thairie Ritchie, who says he drew inspiration for the event, in part, from the recent Black Lives Matter protests on West Cliff.

“It really inspired me to see the community come together in peace and solidarity, figuring out ways to unite and make change happen,” he says. “I have no history of organizing at all. It was honestly just a thought that came together, and a lot of friends, acquaintances and community members that all united and were like, ‘Yeah. We’re behind you on this 100%.’” 

Seeing the event turnout, Ritchie says he was heartened and incredibly grateful to see Santa Cruz show up in a peaceful, loving manner to demand change. 

Part of the event’s purpose was to pay homage to the history of Juneteenth, which marks the day when the last enslaved people were freed in Texas, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, says Ritchie. 

Still, as Rev. Deborah Johnson of Inner Light Ministries—one of about a dozen speakers at the event—explained, the true history is more complex. 

“Too many people associate Juneteenth with the ending of slavery. This is not true. Yes, Juneteenth freed the existing slaves, but it did not end the institution of slavery,” she said, referencing the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which banned slavery except as punishment for a crime. “It was at this juncture that the criminalization of Blackness happened, and it still continues today.”

Participants at the event all wore masks and encouraged social distancing when possible. During 23-year-old Breanna Byrd’s speech, she addressed Black members of the crowd specifically about social distancing in the time of Covid-19. “Did you feel like you had to change how close you were walking to people?” asked the UCSC PHD student, as members of the crowd replied “No.”

“What is the social distancing order when every white person in town already doesn’t look me in the eye?” she said. “When we say the culture of police, we mean inside of your head, too. We mean the part of you that is still suspicious of us.”

The physical presence of police at the protest was limited to a single police truck and motorcycle, driving ahead of attendees as they marched from the juncture of Maple and Center streets to City Hall. 

The protest included a 10-second moment of silence for 21-year-old Tamario Smith, who died in Santa Cruz County Jail on May 10. In a press release, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office said that Smith died from “acute water intoxication, due to the over-consumption of water in a short period of time.” 

Protestors, including members of Smith’s family, have repeatedly called into question the circumstances surrounding his death, including the medical care he received while in custody.  

“He was a great friend of many of the young members of the African American community in Santa Cruz. We grew up with him,” says speaker Aaliyah Wilson, a friend of Smith’s. “We really would appreciate it if the community could continue to say his name and keep us, the Black children of Santa Cruz, alive. Because we are here, we are prevalent.” 

In addition to highlighting “stories that have been unheard, particularly in the Black and Latino community,” Ritchie says, “what really motivated me to do the protest was my recent experience of racial profiling with the police.” 

The incident, he says, occurred when he was running errands a few blocks from his house last month and a Capitola police officer stopped him while looking for a suspected burglar in the area. 

“The gentleman said, ‘You look like you fit the description of someone in the area.’ And he held up an 8 by 10 picture of a light-skinned Hispanic male. Me being a dark-skinned Black male, I felt that was pretty much blatant racial profiling,” says Ritchie, adding that he later filed a complaint with the department. “I wanted to speak out and shed light that certain things are just not okay and not justifiable.” 

In response to questions about racial profiling within his department, Capitola Police Chief Terry McManus says he recognizes the community’s concerns and believes that ongoing implicit bias trainings, led by non-law enforcement community experts, are critically important. 

“I’ve been in law enforcement 34 years and we’re at a low point, in my opinion, as it relates to communities’ trust in our performance,” he says. “We need to regain that, but it doesn’t happen in a couple of weeks or a couple of months, it’s a long term program. I’ll speak for all the chiefs here in all the departments, we’re all committed to that.” 

McManus added it is “very likely” that his department will ban the use of the chokehold restraint, something Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills committed to earlier this month. 

DEFUND THE POLICE? 

The final speaker at the protest, 21-year-old Ayo Banjo, commenced the event with a rousing call to action, encouraging attendees to support Black-owned businesses, demand the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce diversify its board, and demand a disarming of the UC Santa Cruz Police Department. 

“We know that for no reason should any police be armed on campus, at all,” says Banjo, president of the UC Santa Cruz NAACP and former UC student body president. “How have we normalized that?” 

Banjo also urged protestors to attend the upcoming Santa Cruz City Council meeting on June 23 and demand cuts to the police budget. “Whenever a politician tells you that they care, don’t listen to their words, look at their budget,” he says. “If you care about Black lives, I want to see it in your budget, let’s reflect that. Let’s demand that, together.” 

Currently, the SCPD accounts for about 28% of the city’s total general fund budget expenditures. In Capitola, that number is almost 48%. 

“What [defunding the police] means is taking a lot of the excess funding that’s spent on excessive policing and gearing it toward alternative services,” says Ritchie. “Instead of calling the police on someone who’s mentally ill or someone who’s homeless, we provide more funding to experts in those particular fields to come in and offer more extensive help.” 

In an open meeting between the UCSC NAACP and city leaders this weekend, Mayor Justin Cummings said the majority of calls the local police receive involve people with mental health issues. 

“If there is another agency or entity that could be created or that could be in charge of dealing with those calls, I think across the board, they’re all more than happy for that agency to pick up that role,” says Cummings. “They’re not trained to be social workers and deal with people with mental health issues. So I think it’s an opportunity to work with the county to see if creating that kind of agency is possible.”

Overall, Ritchie says he is proud of what youth-led actions are accomplishing, both locally and nationwide. 

“I really commend a lot of these youth leaders, Black and brown brothers and sisters, for really stepping up to the plate, bringing the community together, making effective changes, and really making a statement,” he says. “They realize it’s their chance to make a difference.”

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