Santa Barbara Saw 3,000 Protesters in the Sunken Gardens

Mayor Murillo Strongly Criticized by Black Lives Matter Leaders

Mayor Cathy Murillo walks up behind the police during a protest against police brutality and for justice for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery Sunday May 31, 2020. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

8:46:  It turns out that can be a very long time. It’s plenty long enough, for example, to be killed, as George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, experienced with a fatal knee to his neck, applied by a white Minneapolis cop with a long history of citizen complaints and violence toward black people. Floyd’s death sparked the current coast-to-coast wildfire of protests, demonstrations, and violence that is still raging.

Cruel absurdity entered the scene on Monday in the form of America’s Emperor in Chief when he declared his intent to invade the United States. That’s when troops under federal command were ordered to deploy military force against protesters peacefully assembled in Lafayette Square, in front of the White House ​— ​shooting them with rubber bullets, blasting them with tear gas, and wind-bombing them with helicopters. Why? So the president could “dominate the streets.” He did this by taking an unmolested jaunt, less than two blocks long, to a staged photo shoot of Himself holding a Bible in front of a historic church.

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In Santa Barbara this past Sunday, 3,000 protesters rallied at the courthouse to hear speakers and then marched peacefully through the streets. At the intersection of Figueroa and Santa Barbara, not far from the city’s police department, the crowd stopped. Bearing somber witness to Floyd’s killing, around 100 black people lay their bodies down on the street. Kneeling around them were their white and brown supporters. As political street theater, it was powerful stuff. But it was much more. The people who stood up eight minutes and 46 seconds later were not the same as the ones who lay down eight minutes and 46 seconds earlier. It turns out that eight minutes and 46 seconds really is a very long time.

Then something happened.

What they saw as they started picking themselves up off the ground was the Santa Barbara police station, completely blocked off by two lines of city officers, many in what looked like riot gear, standing in protective formation, some holding clear plexiglass body-shields. Through this scene of heightened precaution, walked Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo.

Whatever was to happen next was not going to go well.

It didn’t. 

When Murillo arrived, she’d just been contacted by organizers to show up and accept the five demands enumerated by two of the rally’s main organizers, Krystle Farmer Sieghart and Simone Ruskamp of Black Lives Matter. Murillo had not been walking with the crowd, so she did not hear them chanting, “Kneel with us,” in an effort to enlist Santa Barbara’s finest to join with them in taking a knee. This “sign of solidarity” was the same one that many police chiefs, uniformed cops, mayors, and elected officials have done in cities across the country.

But that was not in the plan. The plan was for Murillo to show up, accept the demands, and go.

It didn’t work out that way. 

I have no idea what Farmer Sieghart or Ruskamp expected from Murillo. Given Murillo’s earlier history as the council’s most outspoken social justice advocate — someone who waged a lonely fight against the city’s proposed gang injunction — maybe they expected her to stand or kneel with them. Maybe they thought Murillo ​— ​as the daughter of an L.A. gang member and the first Latina mayor in the city’s history ​— ​would have marched with them. I don’t know. As organizers, Farmer Sieghart and Ruskamp—better known for their activism on the City College campus ​— ​are loud, proud, and will not, as they often point out, be silenced. 

What struck me about the Sunday event was how amazingly fast the organizers put it together and how electrified the energy was. It was not Santa Barbara’s typical crowd of elders. All the usual suspects were conspicuously not on hand. It was exciting. It was a younger and more diverse group assembled in the Sunken Gardens. And nearly everyone, for what it’s worth, wore masks. That was by the organizers’ design. And no white-boy vigilantes ​— ​either right-wing accelerants or left-wing anarchists ​— ​were allowed to go crazy and smash stuff. That, too, was by design.

But the speeches packed serious heat. Some scorched. Farmer Sieghart and Ruskamp had passion, style, and swagger. There was very little kum-ba-yah comfort zone. As a middle-aged honky, I squirmed. Had I really become so tepidly moderate? Maybe so. Many times, I found myself thinking, turn it down.

Guess what? This is precisely not the historic moment to ask anti-racists to turn it down.

When Murillo emerged from behind the police lines to meet with Farmer Sieghart and Ruskamp, Farmer Sieghart, who was wielding a bullhorn, demanded: “Where have you been?” Murillo tried to say something. “When a black woman is speaking, silence,” Farmer Sieghart replied. Murillo then took off her face mask and raised her voice. “When the mayor is speaking, you have to listen to me, too,” she said. Ruskamp interjected: “You will not exercise your power as a passing white woman to silence her.”  

From where I sit, that’s 360 degrees of solid ouch.

Very clearly, the mayor of Santa Barbara should have marched to protest the death of another black man at the hands of police. And Murillo should have taken a knee.

The cops on scene should have read the police playbooks that have de-escalated tensions in other cities: They should have taken off their helmets, taken off the armor, and taken a fricking knee too. 

But really? “A passing white woman?”

We’ve got to work together. 

On Tuesday, Farmer Sieghart and Ruskamp virtually packed the City Council chambers with supporters. Before that, they flooded councilmembers with about 500 emails in support of the five demands. They are amazing organizers. Some of the demands were easy — like declaring racism a national health emergency. Others, such as the creation of a police civilian review board, would have been politically impossible any other time. But this Tuesday, the council embraced it like a long-lost lover. That’s big, important stuff. But most of the speakers ​— ​black, white, and brown ​— ​almost exclusively focused on taking Murillo to the woodshed. For two and a half hours, they raked her over the coals. It was rough.  

Maybe I’ve grown too weary. I hope not. 

There’s a lot of hard work ahead. It’s not going away. We all have to work together. —Nick Welsh

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