A few weeks ago, a small, majority-white city with no tradition of protest may have seemed an unlikely venue for a homegrown Black Lives Matter demonstration. In a pattern that has repeated across the country, young people here chose to organize within their own community, rather than remain silent or commute to a larger city where they might protest anonymously. More than 300 protesters marched down Scotts Valley Drive last Wednesday, in what Police Chief Steve Walpole described as the city's first protest in history.
During an hour-long procession, demonstrators of all ages chanted “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice, No Peace.” Many carried signs denouncing violence and racism. “White Silence is Violence,” read one poster. “Human Rights Aren’t Optional,” reminded another.
Seen and heard throughout the march were the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd—unarmed black citizens who were killed by police in Minneapolis and Louisville earlier this year. Floyd’s death on May 25th sparked the current wave of protests, which has spread from the nation’s cities to its small towns.
Among the protesters on Wednesday was Mika Millan, a recent Scotts Valley High School graduate who attended the march with her sister. She emphasized the importance of community action: “We believe it’s important to bring awareness to a movement that affects so many of our family members, especially in a town that may not be aware of its bias towards people of color,” she shared.
Other community members joined the marchers as they gathered at MacDorsa Park, across from the Police Department and City Council Chambers. Chief Walpole and Mayor Randy Johnson spoke to the crowd, then retreated to the sidelines and listened as organizers hosted a two-hour open microphone session.
The number of demonstrators was remarkable— especially given the ongoing pandemic, initial scheduling concerns, and other obstacles to assembly. The crowd was larger than some organizers had publicly anticipated, but it was not larger than they were prepared to handle.
To combat the spread of COVID-19, the group’s 14 organizers (all local students, ages 16 to 21) demanded that demonstrators wear masks. They also provided hand sanitizer and wet wipes. Many spectators held signs while social distancing from the crowd, and supportive local businesses handed out bottled water along the route. Some drivers honked their horns or raised fists in solidarity, while one yelled at demonstrators to “Go home.”
The march had been scheduled for the prior Sunday, the Saturday night shooting death of Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller prompted a postponement. In an interview the day before the march, organizers expressed their thanks to the Scotts Valley Police Department. Local officers helped coordinate the route, while also working overtime to fill shifts for a mourning County Sheriff’s Office. As a result, popular slogans such as “ACAB,” (an abbreviation for “All Cops Are Bastards”) were absent from Wednesday’s demonstration. Several signs bearing the acronym were left behind as the march began, at the organizers’ request.
When local students Jenny Johnston and Genevieve Bellevance announced the march’s new date just two days in advance, it was unclear whether word would spread in time. With the help of Robert Aldana’s My Scotts Valley Facebook page, the two were able to reach out and address community questions and concerns.
While many Facebook users expressed their support or opposition to the march respectfully, there was also considerable vitriol in the run-up to the event. Some accused Johnston of being an outside “antifa agitator,” based on an observation that she had only recently joined the Facebook group. In reality, Johnston is far from an outside agitator: she grew up in Scotts Valley. Like many Americans under the age of 25, she is not usually active on Facebook.
Other online commenters suggested that a protest would invite violence, chaos, and looting. There were no signs of violence during the march. Nor were there any disturbances during the open microphone session that followed.
The first speaker at MacDorsa was 19-year-old organizer Ayanna Palmer. Speaking through a megaphone, Palmer described her experiences with overt and institutional racism as a black student growing up in Scotts Valley.
In seven minutes, she shared three stories: one of her own, one from her younger brother (another recent SVHS graduate), and one from her younger sister. Palmer described how her brother was asked to cut his hair when it was deemed “a distraction for other students,” in middle school. She spoke of administrators who did little or nothing when she, and now her sister, were routinely bullied or intimidated on account of race.
“These stories don’t even begin to cover what has happened to me, my family, and other people of color in Scotts Valley,” Palmer shared. “When we spoke up, nothing happened... We have to have these difficult conversations so change can be made.”
Brandon Smith, a former NASA and Apple engineer and a co-founder of a local design firm, also spoke. “I do ask that you listen, with an open heart and open mind, and try to feel what it feels like to be a black man in this country… There are things that I can not do, that others take for granted,” he began.
In a speech that provoked tears, laughter, and a minute-long standing ovation, Smith described his disillusionment with the idea that if a black man checks enough boxes, he can escape racism. He explained how two Stanford engineering degrees and fourteen patents failed to keep him from being profiled and degraded by police, or his wife from being mistaken for a housekeeper in her own home.
In response to those who say “All lives matter,” when they hear the phrase “Black lives matter,” Smith offered an analogy: “Think of it in medical terms. If a patient enters a hospital with multiple injuries, the staff will triage their injuries. It’s not that a broken arm isn’t important and shouldn’t be addressed. But it’s not as critical to survival as treating wounds that are life-threatening… In this climate, in which deaths of unarmed black citizens have become almost a weekly occurrence, we must triage and address what is life-threatening.”
Other prominent community members who spoke included Tricia Timm, a corporate lawyer whose husband is Vice Mayor Derek Timm, and realtor Robert Aldana. Both spoke of growing up in environments where they were encouraged to conceal their hispanic backgrounds and to smile and nod at the racist words and actions of friends and colleagues.
Brody Affolter, a recent SVHS graduate, described the event as educational: “I’ve never had to experience racism myself, so it was eye-opening to see my peers share their many stories and perspectives.”
Both organizers and participants characterized the demonstration as an opportunity to start a community dialogue on racism and policing, and to grieve losses, both local and national. As Brandon Smith reminded the hundreds assembled at MacDorsa Park, “The injustice is present in everyday interactions with everyday people. It is not limited to law enforcement, even though those interactions tend to have the most visible consequences. It is for this reason that we must open our eyes. Reflect, discuss, and address the racism that exists in our society, in all forms.”