A Sense of Proportion in Santa Maria’s Response to Sunday’s Protest and Unrest

Photo courtesy of Candice Payne

It’s about 24 hours since glass was smashed at the Santa Maria Town Center and a dozen thrill seekers tore through the building, smashing liquor bottles and windows, with a couple even getting away with merchandise looted from at least one store. I’m typing this from home where I have been since before the 9 p.m. curfew imposed by Mayor Alice Patino, which is understandable given the circumstances.

As someone who reported on the events at Cook and Broadway three separate times during the day for my website and YouTube channel, it’s been a huge disappointment to see local media and angry online commenters focus solely on the actions of very few individuals late into the night and ignore the message of the activists who showed in the hundreds to march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it was nice to see yesterday that somebody got the message—the Santa Maria Police Department.

I commend the SMPD for refraining from escalating actions against the protestors as they continued their demonstration in the intersection, an act of civil disobedience that backed up traffic and certainly annoyed more than a few people, because we’ve seen clearly how police officers have responded to peaceful protestors across the nation.

Riot officers have fired tear gas canisters and plastic pellets wantonly at citizens and journalists, shoved the elderly to the ground, spraying children with mace, and driven vehicles into crowds. Some have even used bullets, killing Americans who are calling on reform in the way law enforcement use restraint. This escalation nationwide has clearly elevated the aggressiveness and rage of protestors, and though not in every case of destruction and looting, spurred peaceful protests into full blown riots.

In San Luis Obispo, our neighbor to the north, young activists ran in fear as San Luis Obispo Police Department officers fired tear gas their way.

The SMPD, thankfully, did none of that.

Clearly, in Santa Maria, as the activists dwindled and the sun went down, another group of rowdy opportunists descended on Cook and Broadway to take advantage of the situation while many just watched the mayhem. I believe the SMPD, which had officers at the mall minutes after the vandalism began, could have instigated a much more destructive response had they arrived with riot gear and tear gas earlier in the night.

But it would have proven that the pleas of the conscientious activists involved in the actual protest earlier in the day fell on deaf ears. Like the young man I spoke to who was attending his first ever protest, who said, “I hope people just take the message … that they can think about the things they talk about within their own circles, because I know behind closed doors people are different, that they can be racist. I just hope they can take that into account, stop being like that, and educate their friends and family about how ignorant it is to be that way.”

The SMPD was nearby, of course, to maintain order, but they gave a respectful distance to the protestors, many of whom were cathartically expressing their pain. To me, it signifies a wise and measured response. Property can be replaced, human lives cannot.

And for everyone choosing to focus on the negative actions of a few, and not the outpouring of the many who marched and voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, I would ask you to consider the history. As an indigenous woman I interviewed said, we have to recognize the history of white supremacy and its affects on societies across the world, in North and South America, and especially in our home here in the United States. We must recognize the painful truth about and how white Americans have structured power not just for themselves, but against those they deemed “other.”

The epicenter of the protest was the Santa Maria City Hall, named the George Hobbs Civic Center, after the city’s former mayor whose remarks still leave scars on our Hispanic population. While that is part of Santa Maria’s legacy, so is the compassion and patience our police department and city leadership have shown in the wake of Sunday’s events.

Though the actions of a few who disrespected the property at the mall and the flag that hangs at City Hall left a mark as well, proactive community members were there to help pick up the pieces, fly the flag, and move us forward again. Even as our community is reeling from an ongoing pandemic and the economic fallout from it, we can find some togetherness in moving forward through the national tragedy of police brutality, and with the SMPD demonstrating a clear willingness to respect that endeavor.

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Published by Joe Payne

Joe Payne is a lifelong resident of the Santa Maria Valley who teaches music, performs, and tunes pianos (pianopayne.com). He's also a seasoned journalist who shares his own reporting and opinion on matters local and national (politicalpayne.com).

3 thoughts on “A Sense of Proportion in Santa Maria’s Response to Sunday’s Protest and Unrest

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