I learned after the fact that both of my granddaughters (ages 15 and 19) had been in the “Black Lives Matter” protest in Santa Clarita on May 30, after seeing the killing of George Floyd on social media. I was not surprised that they went. Both straight-A students, my youngest granddaughter was captain of the Mathletes team. The eldest was FFA vice president, spearheading programs including delivering menstrual pads to homeless women. My granddaughters are Caucasian, but most of their school friends are African American. I called them to see how the rally went. For generations our family has been civically active. I have attended demonstrations for more than 50 years (including at the Pentagon), yet I was not prepared for what I heard.
The girls told me the demonstration was put together by teens. They guessed there were about 500 mostly white kids. It was organized and peaceful, and participants wore their health masks. When I asked, they confirmed that the march stopped at red lights – not blocking traffic. (Good.) I was impressed and heartened. It sounded like young people were taking a stand to support the rights of others.
At first police who drove by would nod or wave. But then they saw a van drive by with police in full riot gear. “That made me a little nervous, especially after seeing all the videos of peaceful people, kneeling, and being beaten by police,” one granddaughter said. The marchers moved on holding signs and chanting, “What was his name? – George Floyd” and “Hands up – don’t shoot.”
“When we got to the sheriff’s station there were all these cops waiting for us with riffles as big as they were. Literally, from their head to their toe, as big as they were.”
The other chimed in, “There were 30 of them all geared up, with riffles as big as a person!”
Trying not to cry, I said “huge guns” as I started to take notes. “Assault rifles!” they said in unison. (Assault rifles? Why do my grandkids know about assault rifles? I didn’t talk about assault rifles when I was their age, much less have them trained on me by local “law enforcement.”)
The plan was to take a knee at the sheriff’s station. Protesters noticed more and more officers were coming out who had different weapons with bright yellow on the side. (Rubber bullets? Pepper spray?) Kids were getting uncomfortable so they all knelt even sooner, waiting for the press who hadn’t arrived yet. My older granddaughter, who stands a good head taller than her sister, told me she kept pressing her little sister lower because she had seen “…the cops go after smaller people,” in the videos. (Heartbreaking) When the press finally arrived and the youth started the walk back – they were followed by officers with weapons.
Back behind the mall, the girls said a driver who was not part of the march slowed, then stopped in the turn lane in support. Some kids went to kneel with the car. Police cars pulled in, and my granddaughters left.
I have never experienced anything like this. Whose idea was it to train huge weapons on our kids who were peacefully protesting violence? Was it Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who ran on a platform of improved rights for people of color? How did officers actually feel about targeting local teens? What did decision makers hope to accomplish? Do officers now feel so threatened they’re on a hair trigger that could go off at any time? Or is this behavior actually the current standard, but many of us didn’t see it before because of white privilege? Where are our elected officials in this?
Here’s what I do know. The kids at the march were some of the brightest, most responsible new leaders in the area. My granddaughters and their peers have already been traumatized by gun violence at their schools. The excessive threat of violence posed by the Sheriff’s Department created a lifelong impression on our youth, one that could hardly lead to respect and trust. I have worked with and have dear friends on the force, and I can tell you, this is not a good thing.
I think opportunity for healing lies in curiosity and storytelling. We desperately need a platform for dialogue, moderated by professionals, not for posturing, but for asking questions to the human beings on either side. This type of reconciliation has been successful all over the world. There is a better way.