Santa Maria NAACP and police prepare for peaceful Thursday vigil as community groups targeted for Sunday’s unrest

BY JOE PAYNE

On the day George Floyd was senselessly murdered in Minneapolis, Minn., the Central Coast’s branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held multiple vigils, but not for Floyd.

They were meeting to raise awareness of police brutality over the killings of Amaud Arbery, who was shot down by vigilantes in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor, who Louisville, Kentucky Police hit with eight bullets in her home. After marathon vigils in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Maria that day, Santa Maria-Lompoc NAACP branch President Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt’s day was pierced by the news and video of a white police officer suffocating Floyd with a knee to his neck for nearly 9 minutes.

“So that’s the irony of May 25,” she said.

George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (left to right)

Even before the United States descended into mass protest punctuated by widespread rioting, looting, and more violence at the hands of overzealous police and rioters, Lyons-Pruitt wanted to wait to have a local vigil event for Floyd.

“I thought, do we really need to have another one?” she said.

Of course, they did, and would, but once she saw the chaos across the nation, it was clear some time was needed before a local vigil would be appropriate. Tensions needed to calm before it would be safe, she explained, and so a vigil was cautiously scheduled for Thursday, June 4, at 5 p.m. at Santa Maria City Hall.

That’s why, when a large protest was quickly organized for May 31 in Santa Maria at the same place, Lyons-Pruitt was hardly aware of the event beforehand and didn’t attend. But that didn’t stop her organization and others in the community from sharing in the blame from uninformed online commenters angry about the after-hours unrest, violence, vandalism, and looting that occurred at Broadway and Cook Street.

“I think the people who tried to organize that protest, the march, they did a wonderful job and I do appreciate they took this on,” Lyons-Pruitt said. “Particularly because they weren’t African Americans, but they felt passionate enough to take it on.”

Protestors sat in the middle of Broadway just before the Cook intersection for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on May 31 in Santa Maria, observing the same amount of time George Floyd’s neck was pressed by a police officers knee. Photo by Joe Payne

“Now … what I will call the second protest, we do not, the NAACP, we do not condone what happened,” she added. “We live in this community, we want to live in a safe community, we’re not going to condone violence, we’re not going to condone destruction of property. We’re all about nonviolence. Maybe I’m from an old school, but I totally disagree with how some protestors in other cities, how they are doing things.”

Another local group with experience organizing vigils and activist demonstrations is Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), and according to CAUSE Policy Advocate Abraham Melendrez, it still isn’t totally clear who organized the May 31 event. He communicated with a couple of youth, who were white, that had initially shared the flier calling for a march that day, because it didn’t have any organization watermarks or logos.

“We thought it looked unorganized,” Melendrez said, “but it was just so fast we had no time to get involved at all.”

But that fact didn’t stop those angry about the protest and later vandalism from targeting CAUSE organizers as a source for blame.

Social media has been both supportive and particularly toxic during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, but CAUSE organizers and youth members specifically saw violent threats. One, at least, to the point that a report has been filed with the Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD), Melendrez said.

CAUSE and its organizers have been targeted before, Melendrez explained. The building the organization calls home was recently vandalized before the event, he said, with messaging directed at the city’s undocumented population, which CAUSE works to support.

“We ourselves have had a 100 percent track record keeping things peaceful every time we have done something,” Melendrez said. “People are looking to us to respond, but this wasn’t an action we organized … this was organic grassroots energy that came out without even us us being involved.”

Never-the-less, because of CAUSE’s history of activism in the community, organizers were targeted after the events of May 31.

“There has been a lot of online hate,” he said. “There are even youth who weren’t even there that are getting some hate; people think they cut down the flag.”

The moderators of a popular local Facebook group, Central Coast Chisme, were present for most of the protest and rowdy aftermath, live streaming what occurred. When a small group of demonstrators began removing the American flag from the City Hall pole, those associated with the Chisme confronted them, and scuffles ensued.

“This isn’t about America, this about the police!” said one man, as a woman associated with those taking down the flag screamed “You’re trash! You’re trash!” back.

Later, a handful of local veterans led by those associated with the Chisme brought a new flag to restore what was taken. In the days following, a caravan of mostly pickup trucks drove down Broadway flying the stars and stripes, an event organized by members of the Facebook group. Video of the caravan was posted later using the hashtags LoveBeatsHate, BLM, and UnitedWeStand.

But even despite the message of unity, the Central Coast Chisme group has seen a lot of back-and-forth fighting among its members about Sunday’s events, the destruction of property, and the Black Lives Matter movement in general. The group has more than 30,000 members, so from just a logistical standpoint, devision is hard to avoid.

And when someone posted about the Santa Maria-Lompoc NAACP’s event would move forward despite what happened, there were plenty of people vocally angry, as Lyons-Pruitt learned from a social media-savvy neighbor.

“He said they were talking about the memorial tomorrow, and they’re not happy we’re having it,” she said. “I get it. You’re seeing what’s happening all over the country, and there’s violence, there’s destruction of property, and people are afraid it’s going to happen here in their own backyard.”

But Lyons-Pruitt is confident that there won’t be a repeat of Sunday’s events at Thursday’s vigil, which will include a march, because of an ongoing relationship between her NAACP branch and the SMPD.

There is an “open door policy” between Lyons-Pruitt and the SMPD Chief Phil Hansen, she explained, ever since she received localized death threats after releasing a statement in 2013 about the “not guilty” verdict of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin. Ralph Martin was chief then, she explained, but ever since there has been a “working relationship” with the department.

Lyons-Pruitt added that she respects the SMPD’s decision not to intervene through most of the day and into the night and not escalate the situation into violence.

“They did the best they could with the intel they had and we have to remember that they’re trying to keep the community safe and their officers safe,” Lyons-Pruitt said. “I respect their decision because our community is getting bigger and bigger and probably in 5 or 10 years we will outgrow the personal relationships that we have with our police department because the city will be too big.”

“And when that happens, some of the things that you see in a bigger city like LA and New York, those are the type of things you will see happen in our community unless we get reforms, unless there are nationwide reforms.”

An SMPD motorcycle officer warns protestors about standing in the intersection of Cook and Broadway on May 31. Image Captured by Joe Payne

The SMPD faced its own online criticism for not ending the spectacle on Sunday sooner.

But according to SMPD Lt. Russell Mengel, the looting and property damage done to the Santa Maria Town Center only happened after 60 department and outside agency support officers came to disburse the crowd.

“They got compliance for the most part,” Mengel said. “Everybody got in their cars and headed home, and few hit both sides of Town Center East.”

According to Mengel, Chief Hansen was present for “a portion of the evening,” and assessed that intervening earlier would have made matters worse. “With his 40-plus years of law enforcement, he said it’s always a fine line for law enforcement to walk with people voicing their frustration or concerns with societal issues and balancing concerns of public safety.”

The department made a handful of arrests on June 3 of individuals involved in the lawlessness on May 31, dispatching Traffic Unit officers to take into custody both the scofflaws and their vehicles. One person penalized attempted to post to the Central Coast Chisme group with a GoFundMe.com account for help getting his car out of impound, but group moderators blocked him from doing so.

Photo courtesy Santa Maria Police Department

Mengel added that the department is prepared for the Thursday vigil organized by the NAACP, which they foresee will be a peaceful event. City leadership imposed a weeklong 9 p.m. curfew following May 31, and the event is schedule to begin at 5 p.m., four hours before the curfew begins. Mayor Alice Patino is expected to attend the vigil and join the march, but so will a fully-staffed Santa Maria Police Department.

“It’s an all hands on deck moment,” Mengel said. “We’re going to be there, we’re going to be engaged, and help people express their First Amendment-protected rights and have the resources present to address anyone who may want to take advantage of the situation and victimize others in this emotionally charged moment in our nations history.”

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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).

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