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In solidarity

An open letter to District Attorney Dan Dow

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I know you have asked the public to be patient, but because I was there I would hate to let another day go by before asking that you do not formally bring charges against local Black Lives Matter leader Ms. Tianna Arata.

I know you were personally very angry about the protesters' decision to stop traffic on the freeway on Tuesday, July 21, as were many others in our community. I get that. I saw your post condemning the protesters' decisions on your Facebook page. As a human being, you are entitled to your own emotions and beliefs, and in that sense you have every right to not only disagree with her actions, but also to be very angry.

Just as Ms. Arata and hundreds of others have every right to be angry about Sheriff Ian Parkinson's claim revealed earlier that week that systemic racism doesn't exist in San Luis Obispo County. Why is this statement so inflammatory that people would want to directly protest it at Mitchell Park?

When I first heard about Parkinson's remarks I gave him the benefit of the doubt and thought, maybe he just doesn't know what systemic racism entails. As a white person, because racism hasn't affected me personally, I certainly didn't fully understand how systemic—meaning woven into the fabric of many institutions—racism was until I read a few books and started talking to people of color. So, maybe, just maybe, he has never listened to the experiences of Black or Indigenous people and people of color who have grown up here on the Central Coast, the very people who experience racism in their daily interactions with the police and elsewhere. I don't know Sheriff Parkinson personally, so I can't say. But I do know his claim is both false and dangerous.

It would be very easy for a white mom like myself raising her three white kids to let her children believe that something as ugly as systemic racism "doesn't exist here" on the beautiful Central Coast. But what affords white people this fantasy is that we have the privilege of never experiencing it. If we've never experienced it, how easy would it be to conclude that it doesn't even exist? And, from this statement, the public could wrongly conclude that if racism doesn't exist here, then there's certainly no reason to be gathering in the streets chanting "Black lives matter," right?

Well, I'm sorry to say, but if Parkinson thought there was no reason to protest before that Tuesday, there are multiple reasons now. Maybe even five? One for each of the charges concocted after Ms. Arata's arrest.

At the very close of the evening, after most of us had left, including myself, after all direct action had ended—that is when the arresting officer swooped in. It's suspiciously convenient that the police waited to arrest Ms. Arata until nearly everyone was gone. Fewer people to witness the way she was arrested, perhaps? She was given no reason for her arrest. He didn't even read her her rights. I hope this crucial detail doesn't get swept under the rug or "forgotten" during your investigation.

I will repeat myself: The arresting officer did not read Tianna her rights. I know this because several of my friends were still there, and I'm very grateful they will serve as witnesses. There is also a video of her arrest in which you can hear her saying, "I am not resisting" and yet, resisting arrest is oddly one of the charges the police department listed in the press release it sent out later that night.

So, I hope you are sensitive to the fact that these are exactly the type of injustices people are protesting in the streets of downtown SLO. How does it look when police officers concoct charges for arrest only after the arrest has already taken place? Ms. Arata was held for an entire hour before anyone was able to tell her why she was arrested in the first place. Some who witnessed it are going as far as to say that Ms. Arata was "snatched" or "kidnapped" by her arresting officer because he didn't legally arrest her to begin with.

The entirety of the July 21 rally, march, and demonstration was tense, and I watched the police officers throughout the day—they were at the ready, looking to arrest rather than protect or serve. It's almost as if they were just waiting, waiting to pounce, desperately looking for some way to arrest demonstrators, maybe because they were just really offended by the way Ms. Arata and hundreds of others chose to protest, particularly their choice to march onto the freeway.

Believe me, I know people don't like to have their lives interrupted. No one wants to get stopped on the freeway in rush hour traffic when they feel like the Black Lives Matter movement doesn't affect them. But that is exactly the point. The injustices that Black and brown people face at the hands of police should make us angry, at least as angry as we get when we are inconvenienced by a group of non-violent protesters driving home on a Tuesday night.

I know you are in the process of investigating that Tuesday's events. I know your office is "obligated to be objective," as you yourself said in a statement released Thursday. I also know that it may be particularly hard for you since you've publicly announced your bias against how Ms. Arata chose to lead the protest on the freeway. It made you so angry, in fact, it appears you took the time to drive to the demonstration yourself, take video, and post it along with disparaging remarks on your personal Facebook page.

You've also said that you do "not make charging decisions on the basis of public opinions." If that is the case, I do hope you honor the witness statements provided that week as evidence and not opinion, all of which will easily show Ms. Arata should not be formally charged. Δ

Jennifer Ashley wrote to New Times from Atascadero. Send a response for publication to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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