Messages of healing and indignation surged through a sea of thousands of protesters gathered at the Santa Barbara Courthouse this Sunday afternoon calling for an end to police brutality against black Americans. Organized by members of the area Black Lives Matter chapter and Juneteenth Santa Barbara, the speakers blasted the city and its police department and demanded a local declaration that racism was a public health emergency.
The peaceful protest was one of many that have ignited across the United States over the last several days in response to the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. A video that went viral on news networks and social media showed the officer pinning Floyd to the ground by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd could be heard pleading: “Please, I can’t breathe.”
The footage of Floyd’s brutal death was another one of countless unarmed black people killed by police. It was the final straw, inciting violent riots and peaceful protests in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, and many other American cities.
“It has been paining my grandparents to sit at home and see this shit still happening,” said Krystle Farmer Sieghart, a fifth-generation Santa Barbara black woman and one of the main organizers of the protest. “We forget that MLK was shot — murdered — not too long ago. My grandparents were alive. They remember it. They remember the pain, and it’s still happening today.”
Before an estimated crowd of over 3,000, most of whom were dressed in white, Farmer Sieghart, and another speaker, Simone Ruskamp, passionately described the personal traumas they have experienced as black women. Farmer Sieghart spoke of how black history has been erased in Santa Barbara, and she mourned the loss of black landmarks, such as the 2nd Baptist Church — the oldest African-American church in the city.
“I don’t talk about my trauma for you. I do this for my kid,” Ruskamp said through tears. Along with Farmer Sieghart, she and a handful of other speakers exploded with emotion as they demanded change for black people and all persons of color. White allies were also invited to speak, including Chelsea Lancaster, who called out several people and institutions in Santa Barbara that she said continued to uphold racism.
“Officers that are with us today, are you here to protect white people? Right, you’re here to protect white people,” Lancaster said. “ Everybody here today is tired of being quiet…. White supremacy is not the shark; it’s the water. Only one person dies from a shark attack per year. Thousands die from drowning. Black folks are drowning.”
She, and others, chastised the Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow for a statement she issued regarding Floyd’s death because Luhnow did not include anyone from the black community for input.
After nearly four hours of speeches at the courthouse’s Sunken Garden, the protesters, in a wave of white shirts, began to walk onto the streets, starting on Anacapa Street and marching down to Figueroa Street and turning to State Street. Nearly all protestors wore masks as a precaution against the COVID-19 virus, but the large crowd size made social distancing impossible.
At the corner of Figueroa and Santa Barbara streets, the protesters lay down for eight minutes — the amount of time then-police officer Derek Chauvin, who was fired from the force and is now charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, knelt on Floyd’s neck.
In contrast to some of the more violent protests that have taken place in other cities, Santa Barbara’s was peaceful. A few marchers tagged buildings along Figueroa with phrases such as “fuck the cops” or “say their names.” When anyone began to get out of hand, other protesters would deescalate the situation by saying, “We don’t do that here” and “We’re peaceful.”
“I’m genuinely afraid that I’m going to die out there,” said one black man who asked to remain anonymous, pointing toward the crowd on Anacapa Street. “This isn’t even just a Black Lives Matter rally. This is a march for humanity. The United States is built on the backs of slavery and injustice. The system is fundamentally flawed.”
Police officers made a human barrier in front of the police station on Figueroa Street, while protesters chanted a demand that they kneel down in support of the movement and as a unified gesture condemning Floyd’s murder by an officer. The Santa Barbara police refused to do so, though in cities such as Santa Cruz and Portland, the mayor and police have knelt in support of the protests.
At one point, Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo emerged from behind the line of police officers apparently to make a statement. Farmer Sieghart, who was speaking with a megaphone, refused to allow the mayor to address the crowd, condemning her for not reaching out to the black community. The mayor did not push back.
Farmer Sieghart’s main grievance with Murillo was her refusal to kneel down despite being asked to by the protestors.
“It just doesn’t make sense why the mayor would not kneel with us,” she said in an interview after the protest. “What kind of message is that sending to this community? What kind of message is that sending to my people?”
Mayor Murillo issued a written statement regarding the protest and the murder of George Floyd shortly after that encounter. In it, she expressed support for the “well-earned righteous indignation” that has erupted over Floyd’s death and that Santa Barbara’s local government “stands in solidarity with those who choose the pre-ordained right to peacefully protest.”
Her statement recommends books on the history of racism and anti-racist works available at the public library and also supports the same Luhnow statement that wasn’t well-received by Farmer Sieghart and many others in the local Black Lives Matter movement.
“I applaud Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow for her courageous leadership to ensure simultaneous dialogue and action to address race in policing,” Murillo said. “I have seen first-hand how our police officers engage in compassionate policing. On a daily basis, they contribute to an authentic community relationship that solidifies the public’s trust.”
The protest broke up around 6 p.m. A full list of the protesters’ demands to the city and the police department can be found here.