On Aug. 25, hundreds of people gathered at the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse for a press conference and rally in support of Black youth activist Tianna Arata, who was arrested on July 21 following a local Black Lives Matter protest.
Organized by the #FreeTianna Coalition made up of local and national organizations, speakers urged SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow to not file charges against Arata and called for SLO Police Chief Deanna Cantrell's termination.
A large group of counter-protesters waved American flags on the corner of Osos and Monterey Streets, holding signs that read "Support Dan Dow" and wearing "Make America Great Again" memorabilia. Others waved anti-California Gov. Gavin Newsom signs and Blue Lives Matter flags and handed out anti-abortion flyers.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- SUPPORTING BLUE On Aug. 25, counter-protesters called for "law and order," demanding Arata pay the time for her crimes and remained firm on their support for law enforcement.
One of Arata's attorneys, civil rights lawyer Curtis Briggs, called Cantrell's actions—having Arata arrested and recommending that the district attorney file five felony and three misdemeanor charges against her—"vile" and "reckless." He blamed Cantrell for "amplifying demonstrations and protests" and "jeopardizing the peace and safety of the community."
"The reason we are here today is because she retaliated against Tianna Arata. Chief Cantrell's blunder drew national attention and put San Luis Obispo in the spotlight in a national controversy," Briggs said. "Instead of having San Luis Obispo devote money for its training, time off, better equipment, learning how to deescalate, or pay raises, she's going to have the city spend millions of dollars litigating this case."
The lineup of 13 speakers attested to Arata's longtime advocacy, their own experiences of racism in San Luis Obispo, and they tied this event to the national conversation about systemic racism.
Arata's mother, SLO native Michelle Arata, gave an emotional speech, saying the family has experienced trauma, fear, and terror, which has amplified since her daughter's arrest.
"My daughter's life is at stake here, her future is at stake," Michelle said. "We need her, and we need all of you."
Arata also addressed the crowd, stating that at 20 years old she still has a lot to accomplish with the Black Lives Matter movement.
"My passion, my goal, and my energy is directed toward enacting change. This is not something that can come from divisiveness in the ideology of separateness," she said.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors equated Arata to activist leaders—Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and John Lewis—and Black communities before her who fought for the rights, freedoms, and self-determination of Black people.
"Tianna Arata, she is part of a legacy, a legacy of young Black people who have taken to the streets to make sure that this place we call the United States of America sees us, believes, us, and ensures our freedom," Cullors said. "Dan Dow, we are calling you to reject those charges, we are calling on you to show up for Black lives. We are calling you to leave those counter-protesters in the dust."
"Lock her up," counter-protesters chanted during the press conference, calling Arata a liar. "Support Dan Dow."
Counter-protester Tami Olson said the group was there because it felt Arata needed to be prosecuted, because the July 21 protest was not peaceful.
"You don't close down a highway for a protest, you don't take a skateboard and knock in the back window of a car and spill glass all over a 4-year-old boy. You don't take our American flag and spit on it and burn it. We're also here to support Dan Dow, and we don't want our police department defunded because we need the police," Olson said.
Olson said she's lived in San Luis Obispo County since 1992 and she's never seen systemic racism or any type of racism occur.
"We don't look at anybody's color, we love them for who they are. This right here," she said pointing to the event, "this right here is causing division in this country."
A small group of counter-protesters and #FreeTianna supporters including Cal Poly football player D.J. Stuckey, huddled together, talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, why they support or don't support Arata, and the events leading up Arata's arrest.
Stuckey, who's been a part of the local BLM movement, told New Times he doesn't mind having conversations with the opposition because it's a way for both sides to understand each other. However, he said he doesn't understand some of their arguments.
"I talked to this one man who said what's going on isn't patriotic. That was his argument. And I said, 'Sir, what are we doing that's not patriotic?' And he couldn't give me an answer," Stuckey said.
Hours later, SLO City Manager Derek Johnson and Police Chief Cantrell held a virtual press conference.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- SPOTLIGHT SLO resident Tianna Arata is in the national spotlight after being arrested post-protest on July 21 with potential charges still pending from the county District Attorney.
Cantrell said that while she appreciates Briggs' quest for her termination, it's off-base.
"I'm a relatively progressive police chief when it comes to change and reform, when it comes to community and relationships and particularly relationships with our marginalized communities. I am also responsible for public safety, of all of the people that are in San Luis Obispo and upholding the right of all of the people, those that are protesting and those that are not. I think I've done that," she said.
Cantrell said that Arata was arrested for her "own actions, her own behavior, her own decisions."
Johnson said that the city has no intention "to prevent Miss Arata or anyone else's efforts to fight racism and increase understanding amongst all our community members. We support free speech, period. We also have to be unwavering in our insistance that gatherings are peaceful and safe for everyone in the community."
"We look forward to the day when we can have a community that San Luis Obispo can be recognized for our work for improving the sense of belonging for everyone," he said. Δ