“What do we want?” hollered Sharon Byrne on Saturday morning into the crowd of more than 100 West Downtown residents who gathered on the corner of Haley and De la Vina streets in Santa Barbara with signs proclaiming “Enough Is Enough” and “Queremos Paz.” Coming together to express their outrage in the wake of the murder of Baldemar Leal, a 22-year-old who was stabbed multiple times last Saturday, February 21, and left to lie on the sidewalk until the next morning, the crowd – which was organized by Byrne along with Christine Pizarro and Tony Vassallo – roared again and again: “Safety Now!”
Their numbers impressive, the group turned many heads during its march down State Street, earning the toots of many car horns from supportive citizens. Resident Steve Johnson smiled at the ranks of neighbors who came together, saying, “I was worried it might only be six or seven people!” The march began on the spot of last week’s murder, after the crowd had lit a candle and shared a moment of silent respect and prayer.
Byrne says the goals in mind for a march of this kind are twofold: first, she hopes to put the West Downtown neighborhood on the map, an area, according to Byrne, overpopulated by liquor stores that rarely receives attention as a cohesive neighborhood, and a place where the city “dumps homeless;” secondly, Byrne hopes to bring people together in the neighborhood “to watch out for each other, and get a little coalescence.”
Byrne and the other founders of the march feel their needs are overlooked often by a city that spends little time dealing with what too many consider a “bad neighborhood.” “This is what we have to deal with,” she said while walking down De La Vina and gesturing to a ripped bag of garbage that had spilled its contents all over the sidewalk. The February 21 murder was sadly not isolated, she said, but rather the most recent crime in the heart of the West Downtown community.
Among the faces in the marching crowd were mayoral hopefuls Iya Falcone and Helene Schneider, who gave their support while each taking the opportunity to outline issues they hope to address in office.
“I welcome them speaking out,” said Schneider as the marchers made vocal their dissatisfaction with the city’s treatment of the neighborhood. “So often people are scared to speak up, or even to call 911, but we need their help. They’re reaching out to the city.” According to Schneider, money that has often gone to attract tourism needs to make it to neighborhoods like West Downtown, where sidewalks and streetlights need work in order to provide safety for all residents and to “allow them to live with dignity.”
Falcone made similar points. “They feel they’re not being listened to, and that’s a tragedy,” she said, lamenting the problem of safety for so many in the downtown area. She said that while the community had tough budgetary choices on the horizon, the decision has to come from the neighborhoods, not the city. Said Falcone, “I will do whatever the community wants.”
Helen Williams, a poet and preschool teacher who lives on De la Vina, saw the murder scene while walking last Sunday and, in her words, “came emotionally unglued.” She explained, “This, here, opens the door – taking action opens the door. This is West Side Story all over again. We say we live in paradise. Let’s keep it that way.”
The march concluded with speeches. Both Schneider and Falcone pledged their commitment to this and every community within the city, with Schneider saying, “I’m here with you, I want to work with you,” and Falcone claiming: “I’m with you. I’ve been with you. I’ll never leave you.”
Following Schneider and Falcone, Viran “David” Singh, who owns Brownie’s Market on De la Vina and Haley streets, came to the microphone and reminded his neighbors they didn’t have to wait for help from the city. He told the crowd that he had recently installed Internet-connected cameras outside his business to give the police a constant look at the neighborhood. Singh also offered to provide motion sensor lights for everyone on the street free of charge.
Wayne Scoles, who was recently found innocent in charges of disturbing the peace following an argument with Chief of Police Cam Sanchez, next took the stage and brought up how hard it is to trust a police force that arrests someone “for asking a question.”
Christina Pizarro, who organized the event through “The Lower West Downtown Neighborhood Group,” quickly returned focus to the problem at hand. Pizarro said she wanted to avoid pointing fingers, hoping rather to move forward.
She asked all those present to help the family of Baldemar Leal, who cannot afford to transport his body home to Mexico. She reminded everyone, “Unaided, unnoticed, he fell. Today is the day we say ‘No More.'”