Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings has had a busy term so far this year.
He took office a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic began, shutting down most parts of public life. And this past spring, activists and politicians from Santa Cruz and other communities around the globe began taking a serious look at issues of law enforcement and systemic racism, and Cummings has been involved in those discussions.
Cummings is Santa Cruz’s first Black male mayor, and his term immediately followed that of former Mayor Martine Watkins—who identifies as mixed race and served as the city’s first-ever mayor of African American heritage. After nationwide protests broke out last month in the wake of the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, Cummings took a knee next to Police Chief Andy Mills at a May 30 protest on Pacific Avenue. Santa Cruz Sentinel photographer Shmuel Thaler snapped a couple pictures, and images of the pair were shared widely, garnering attention from outlets and television programs around the country, including the Los Angeles Times and Real Time with Bill Maher. The political moment has provided an impetus for both Cummings and Mills to move forward with proposed policing reforms.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Santa Cruz City Council also voted unanimously to install a Black Lives Matter Mural and to display Pan-African and Black Lives Matter flags in the front of City Hall during the month of July every year.
Good Times caught up with Cummings last week to discuss the novel coronavirus pandemic, homeless services, budget cuts and more.
What’s it like leading a city during a pandemic?
It’s had its challenges. Santa Cruz has been doing such a phenomenal job sheltering in place and following the county health officer’s orders. The most challenging thing has been the fact that you have a community that’s in compliance, and then, as the weather’s getting nicer—we’re starting to get people from other communities coming through and people feeling like ‘We’re doing everything we’re supposed to; what gives with all these people coming in?’ And a big part is that, as we’re opening up—law enforcement’s had a really difficult job as it is—and now, how do we enforce all of these orders? It’s something that is a bit overwhelming, but we’re doing our best, and the people of Santa Cruz have been doing everything they can to really ensure the health and safety of their communities.
The state of homeless services has changed so much since March—with a big increase in the numbers of bathrooms and hand-washing stations and places for people to sleep. Is this a temporary fix to get us through the pandemic? Or is Santa Cruz piloting a more permanent path forward?
I hope so. I really hope we can learn from this. The one thing that’s really great that’s going to come out of this is our ability to demonstrate that we are able to put things up that don’t have these massive impacts on the communities surrounding them. We have the camp over on Coral Street, the camp in the Benchlands. We have parking in different lots. We have more bathrooms and hand-washing stations. And we haven’t been receiving complaints.
The mayor is technically a part-time job, so you have an additional career. How are you able to stay on top of everything?
I don’t sleep much. But my other job currently is ecological monitoring, which is using drones to do aerial surveys at different UC natural reserves, and it’s only about a day a week, and I’ve been able to fit it in on Fridays.
You and two fellow councilmembers decided that this fall wouldn’t be the right time to try and pass a transient-occupancy-tax increase. What went into that decision?
Given the impacts of Covid-19, we had to pretty much shut all the hotels down, and they’re somewhat operating at this moment. But especially at that time, given Gavin Newsom’s timeline for reopening, it didn’t seem like hotels would be reopening for a very long time. With that in mind, it didn’t make sense to increase the tax on an industry that’s already so negatively impacted by Covid-19. What we’re really hoping is that we can allow the hotels—as the orders are coming in—to reestablish themselves before impacting them with an additional tax.
Due to shortfalls as a result of the shutdowns, many governments are seeing budget cuts to the programs that benefit their most vulnerable residents. How will the city of Santa Cruz balance this year’s deficit?
We have been in negotiations with the different sectors of our workforce to get 10% furloughs across the board. We’re going to be adopting a status quo budget, but the budget subcommittee is going to be meeting throughout the summer and into the early fall to really take a good look at where those cuts will need to be made—what’s the trajectory in terms of reopening?—so that we can do a good assessment in terms of where those cuts are going to come from. And it’s going to be difficult. And given everything that’s been happening with George Floyd and a lot of interest in social services, I hope that some of that burden can be picked up through philanthropic means.
Speaking of George Floyd, in the past month Santa Cruz County has seen overwhelmingly positive protests about the struggle for racial injustice and about issues in law enforcement. You also twice went to the police station to calm heated situations, where you saw white protesters shouting over you and tagging messages in support of Black Lives Matter on the station. Are those people allies for the cause?
If there are white people who are trying to hijack a movement that should be sitting on the voices of Black people—I don’t think of someone who wants to hijack a movement as an ally, no.
Wednesday night [June 3], when I went out, we had a meeting with the police chief and members of the Black community before the protest had come to the police station. And many of the people who came [to the station] were carrying fencing from the clock tower and started barricading the doors. And when looking at all the people who were doing that, the majority of them were white. At one point, this guy was trying to walk past me. He had a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, and he was carrying fencing, and I grabbed the fence, and I pushed back. And he was like, ‘What’re you doing?’ I said, ‘You’re wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. I’m Black. I don’t think what you’re doing is right. Please put this down.’ And then as we looked around, the majority of guys barricading the doors were white. The guy who was on the megaphone was white. And I grabbed the megaphone and said, ‘If you really care about the lives of Black people, then you need to listen to them.’
And many of the people just calmed down. When I asked people who I was, three or four people in the crowd knew I was the mayor of Santa Cruz. It’s one of these things, where ‘Most of you don’t even know your mayor is Black, and he’s the first Black male mayor of the city of Santa Cruz. I’m deeply committed to this because it impacts my life, and I try to make meaningful change, and here’s a group of Black people and African Americans who were just meeting with the police chief to talk about change.’ So we’re doing the work. We’re a community that’s been moving forward and has been proactive about this. We haven’t been sitting back and saying, ‘Eh, we’ll just wait for the protest to calm down.’ We’ve been speaking out, and I know that’s different than what people maybe were expecting, but that’s what governments should be doing, and that’s what governments across the country should be doing—acknowledging this was wrong and looking internally at their own departments and then working with the community to say, ‘How’re you treated? How can we do better?’
I’m totally OK with people protesting as long as they don’t vandalize anything, because that doesn’t help anyone. It just builds tensions and resentment and anger within a community. But if people want to help, they should figure out how to get involved, how they can support movements led by people of color and look within their own institutions to check people within their community as well. We need allies that are going to check and hold institutions that are predominantly white accountable.