It all started with a direct message on Instagram that read “Let’s go protest bro, I’m tired of this B.S.” From there, Santa Barbaran Kyle Brown and a couple friends mobilized thousands to march against police brutality and systemic racism last Saturday with the help of a color printer, a few emails and phone calls, and word of mouth.
What drove Brown to organize a protest grew out of his frustration that Santa Barbara seemed ignorant of the struggles of the black community and the daily injustices due to race. In particular, the city’s past political policies have greatly impacted black individuals, Brown said, and prevented the growth of the black community. “I think Santa Barbara has a facade of being a very progressive, really hip and cool town. While there may be progress, there is still a lot of room for improvement. But, in my opinion, Santa Barbara as a town really needs to take a good look at how they try and present themselves because what they say doesn’t really seem true.”
Brown is a young, systems engineer, and the color of his skin connects him to the cause: “I am seen as a black man to cops and schools. And in public, really, anywhere I go, I am seen as a black man. … When I see people like George Floyd getting treated the way they do, or any person who has died in police custody, I see the color of their skin, and I see that that could have been me in any situation.”
With his colleague Andres Ramirez, Brown first imagined his protest would just be a walk down State Street, making their voices heard. Then another workmate, Trent Marlow, got involved to make flyers, and news of the march quickly spread around Santa Barbara and Isla Vista. “We can fix this place,” Marlow said. “I hope that we inspire some kids to get out and do their political research and vote for people we know will change for social reform, for social justice.”
Brown’s hope extended to the entire community: “I think it is important because it is predominantly white here. If we want systemic racism to end, if we want police brutality to end, and if we want black lives to matter, then we need white people in places like Santa Barbara to stand with us.”
That community included law enforcement and other first responders, Brown and Ramirez decided: “We just began discussing the ways that we can mobilize more people and have a larger group with us,” Ramirez explained. “The first thing we thought of doing was going out to the police and the fire department to see if they would like to join us.”
On the Monday before the march, the trio drove to Santa Barbara police headquarters on Figueroa Street with a rough draft of the poster in hand. They asked for the chief, who wasn’t available, and ended up talking with Captain Marylinda Arroyo, who voiced her support for the protest. They then went over to Carrillo Street and City Fire headquarters, where Operations Division Chief Lee Waldron similarly gave his support to their cause.
Excited by the prospect of having high-profile first responders participating, the three emailed and left voice messages for Mayor Cathy Murillo and members of the Santa Barbara City Council. They got to work finalizing the flyer, posting it to their social media accounts. Late that night, the group taped the homemade signs in strategic locations.
As Brown got in touch with Black Lives Matter leaders in Santa Barbara, his excitement became tempered. He saw the frustration they’d faced with city leaders at the previous week’s protest, and he wanted to stand firmly with them, but they declined to participate. Perhaps because of the city’s missteps — the Black Lives Matter participants rose from an 8-minute, 46-second simulation of George Floyd’s death to be met by police officers in riot gear, ready to defend their station; the mayor came to meet them from behind the police defense line and exchanged sharp words with the protest leaders — city brass listened to Brown, Ramirez, and Marlow.
“Even though there are a lot of systemic issues with the Police Department, when you look at some individual cops, there is potential for some of them to not fulfill the stereotype they have earned in the media,” Brown said. “But, if I am being frank, after hearing what happened with Black Lives Matter Santa Barbara, I definitely felt kind of silly not having them there. Only because those are the people I would have wanted to stand in solidarity with.”
The day after the flyers went up, they were taken down, Marlow learned, though the city said it wasn’t their street crews who ripped them down. Despite this setback, Brown persisted in his attempts to reach out, gaining a conversation with City Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez, who put him in touch with Mayor Cathy Murillo and Police Chief Lori Luhnow.
On the eve of the protest, Brown traveled State Street with Gutierrez in search of a power source for a microphone. They ran into the mayor by happenstance, and Murillo told him who to call to tap into the city’s power grid. During their conversation, Kyle Brown explained his frustrations and the urgent need for change, and urged her to address the Black Lives Matter demands.
Later that evening, the mayor texted Brown and said she’d do just that, releasing a video to her Facebook page soon after. Murillo also said she’d join him in the march but did not wish to speak. That same evening Brown received news that Luhnow would attend the march and was willing to speak to the crowd.
Interest in the march spiked through social media and community leaders the next day. Local advocate and R&B artist Ron Paris contacted Brown to say he’d participate. Kyle Brown’s two-person march down State Street had grown into a large-scale social mobilization.
At 1 p.m. on June 6, Brown spoke to more than 1,000 people about the unjust deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. They applauded and cheered his words, then marched together with Brown, Ramirez, and Marlow down the city’s main street as Brown led the chant, “We want justice!”
Police officers, firefighters, councilmembers, and Santa Barbarans were united on the walk to Stearns Wharf and knelt as one for 8 minutes and 46 seconds at Brown’s request. Urging Santa Barbarans to support local black-owned businesses, Brown thanked the protesters for their time, told them to attend the march the next day, and asked them to keep demanding justice.
The Long Haul
Brown knows there’s a long road ahead. For Santa Barbara to understand and fix social inequities, he said, community leaders must be pushed to fulfill the commitments they have made. Identifying and fixing the racism baked into society, and not just in Santa Barbara, will take work and persistence. “There is such a small population of black people in Santa Barbara, it can be quite easy for them to be overlooked,” he worried. After seeing the poor relationship between Black Lives Matter and city authorities, he said, “The most valuable thing that could happen would be for that relationship to be restored.”
It took a public murder in Minneapolis to bring systemic racism to national attention again, as it has for brief periods following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and too many other black people. To make the change stick this time, Brown thought increased diversity and visibility was key.
“When I first came to Santa Barbara, I had no clue Black Lives Matter existed here. I was ready to leave because there are so few black people. More needs to be done to promote the black community, although I still don’t know exactly what that looks like. I would assume it would require city authorities to connect with the black community.”
Kyle Brown has returned to the engineering project he’d been working on when he assumed his newfound role as an advocate. “The main goal for me will always be to make sure that black people know that they are not alone here,” Brown said, “and know that they are supported and that they can thrive here.” Importantly, that includes viewing his workplace through the lens of social justice and the inclusion of people who are often overlooked.
Brown is committed to continuing his demands for change in the Santa Barbara community and working with the Black Lives Matter chapter of Santa Barbara. Though his is a fresh face in the Santa Barbara community, Brown’s efforts are what he categorizes as the “start of change.”