“What do we want?” hollered Westside resident Sharon Byrne to a crowd of more than 100 gathered on the corner of Haley and De la Vina streets on Saturday. “Safety now!” replied members of the group, many carrying signs bearing such slogans as “Enough Is Enough” and “Queremos Paz.” The crowd of residents of the west of downtown neighborhood had convened to express outrage in the wake of the murder of Baldemar Leal, the 22-year-old stabbed there on Saturday, February 21, and left to lie on the street for half a day until reported to police.
Heads turned as men and women, young and old, white and Hispanic marched down State Street. Area 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 had begun at the site of Leal’s murder, after the crowd lit a candle and offered Leal a moment of silence.
Although Leal’s six attackers are associated with Santa Barbara gangs, police are not investigating the murder as a gang-related incident. Though police remain mum on the matter, sources inside City Hall have suggested the attack was motivated by a romantic entanglement. The District Attorney’s Office is still deliberating whether the murder should be prosecuted as a gang-related crime or as an attack motivated by personal jealousy.
Byrne said she hoped the march accomplished two goals: to bring people together in the neighborhood, and to put the west-of-downtown neighborhood on the map. Byrne claimed the area rarely receives attention as a cohesive neighborhood. She also alleged that the city “dumps homeless” in the area and that it is overpopulated with liquor stores.
Bryne and other march organizers claim their needs are often overlooked by a city that considers their home a bad neighborhood. “This is what we have to deal with,” she said, gesturing to a ripped bag of garbage that had spilled its contents over the De la Vina sidewalk. Leal’s murder, she said, is just the most recent instance of crime in the community.
Among the marchers were mayoral hopefuls Iya Falcone and Helene Schneider, who supported the cause while each taking the opportunity to outline issues they would address in office.
“I welcome them speaking out,” Schneider said. “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.” Schneider also said money that has often gone to attract tourism needs to go to neighborhoods like this one, 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 safety problems for so many downtown. Falcone said that while the community has 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.”
After the march, organizer Christina Pizarro addressed the group and returned focus to the problem at hand. Pizarro said she wanted to avoid “pointing fingers,” hoping instead to move forward. She asked all those present to help Leal’s family, which cannot afford to transport his body home to Mexico. She reminded everyone who it was that brought them out on a Saturday morning. “Unaided, unnoticed, he fell,” she said. “Today is the day we say ‘No more.'”
Viran “David” Singh, owner of De la Vina Street’s Brownie’s Market, also spoke. Unpopular with some in the area for selling alcohol that can attract riff-raff, Singh reminded the community that residents themselves can attempt to change the community for the better, even without city support. He explained that he had recently installed Internet-connected cameras outside his business to give the police a constant look at the neighborhood.
Despite the marchers’ determination, the Saturday demonstration did not immediately precipitate a turn for the better. Singh’s statement may have incited a reaction he didn’t intend; Brownie’s Market was robbed the following day. The very cameras of which Singh spoke were badly damaged. Only hours after the march on Saturday, police arrested eight gang members for assaulting a 22-year-old man, allegedly stomping on him and hitting him with a cinder block after an argument escalated at a party on the 400 block of West Canon Perdido.
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story mentioned that some West Downtown Santa Barbara residents think that Brownie’s Market has a reputation for “selling wares that cater to local riff-raff.” This sentiment referred only to alcohol sales, however; any perceived implication about to more illicit sales was unintentional.