Some honked their horns. Some waved and shared a thumbs up. Others flashed their lights and peace signs, and still others yelled obscenities that can’t be printed in this newspaper. Standing on all corners of Highway 9 and Graham Hill Road in Felton on July 31, nearly 20 supporters of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement heard from motorists as they held their handwritten signs aloft in the warm evening air. “My Life Matters.” “Breath For All.” But the most impactful sign was held by eight-year old Eli Elliott: “Will I Be Next?”
Eli and his five-year old brother, Alex, are homeschooled through the San Lorenzo Valley Charter Program under the tutelage of their mom, Clara, a former English teacher. The presence of COVID-19 in Santa Cruz County didn’t impact their school year, but the killing of George Floyd rocked their world. For the last six weeks, Clara, her husband Kevin, and their two young sons have been protesting in Felton; the impact of Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis has rippled around the world, and the San Lorenzo Valley is no exception.
This is Alex’ first protest. This bright-eyed kid who wants to be a firefighter may not fully understand the complexity of systemic racism or what a chokehold means to a young black man, but his parents do, and so does his big brother. This is Eli’s third protest. When asked how long he’s been protesting, he says, “A long time.” Eli’s first protest was at the age of three in San Jose. That one was in support of BLM, but he’s also been to the Women’s March in San Jose the day after Trump’s inauguration, and another protest in Oakland. For Kevin, a software engineer with Apple, this is his first time. “I’ve never protested a thing in my life, so I’m here for my kids. If we don’t do something,” he says through tears, “I don’t know that they’re going to live. There’s a window of time here where things have to change. If we keep this up, maybe we can make this different.” He looks at his sons with a combination of sorrow and affection. “What happens when they’re not cute anymore?”
Clara keeps her voice raised on behalf of her family. She’s a member of the San Lorenzo Valley/Scotts Valley Coalition Against Racism on Facebook, and has worked closely with other members to determine ways to stop racism locally. “Racism is a systemic problem in our country, and we’re going to need a lot of big changes. I hope that people see that my sons’ lives are worth standing up for. We want to work with local legislators and law enforcement to put some structures in place that will help bring racism to an end, but it’s just so overwhelming.”
Ariel Young is also a member of that Facebook group, and was part of a book study group in mid-2019 led by the Ben Lomond Quaker Center that focused on white privilege and anti-racism education. “That was my first step into being anti-racist.” Based on what Young has experienced while standing with other BLM protesters in Felton, it sounds like others in the area could benefit from that type of education. “I’ve heard people yell, ‘Go home,’ and ‘White Power,’ and I’ve been flipped off many, many times. I worry about the safety of my friends who live locally and are people of color. It’s really troubling.”
Paul Machlis has been there since the beginning. With communities standing up against racism all over the country, the soft-spoken man points out, “It’s an awareness thing. As a country, we haven’t been conscious enough about how racism is baked into the system, and I hope that awareness on our part will help bring about change. Part of why I stand here is to be part of a community that cares about this issue, and also to be an example to young people. There are kids that pass by in cars with their parents, and I wonder what kind of discussion our protest generates amongst them. We’ve had plenty of kids out here too, and they’re learning about free speech and standing up for what you believe, and that’s a valuable lesson too.”
Want to join the movement? The Felton BLM protests happen every Tuesday and Friday beginning at 4:45pm at the intersection of Highway 9 and Graham Hill Road.