Thousands of people marked Martin Luther King Day in Sacramento on Monday – some in celebration, some with anger.
Just days away from a contentious presidential inauguration, Monday’s traditional Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Sacramento reflected the divisiveness that’s roiled the country. Three separate groups of marchers aimed to honor the civil rights leader’s legacy, but had conflicting ideas about how to do so.
The main event, MLK365, was an explosion of joy, despite the fears that some in the crowd of more than 25,000 said they feel leading up to President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday. Children held balloons, guitarists strummed tunes and walkers linked arms.
They poured out from the Sacramento City College campus, joined by police officers, elected officials and dozens of corporate sponsors. “Walk with joy. Walk with purpose,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg urged the crowd. “Hold on to one another. Let’s make 2017 the year where we take care of all the people who need us, and never let anyone divide us as a community.”
Smaller, rival protests and marches elsewhere in the city focused on issues such as police shootings of suspects, unemployment, potential loss of affordable health care and grinding poverty in many African American neighborhoods.
“In 2009, people came because of hope. This year, people are coming because of frustration,” said Sam Starks, director of the MLK365 march. “We’re trying to bring young people to the streets, with the officers. We think we can give them another narrative. ... People really want to see hope, and I really believe in possibilities. No one’s going to steal this joy.”
In downtown Sacramento, just a few blocks from the convention center where the larger march ended, activists from Black Lives Matter and the Green Party yelled in protest and carried signs demanding “Justice for Joseph Mann,” a homeless, mentally ill man who was shot by police last summer on Del Paso Boulevard in North Sacramento. They weaved through moving traffic, holding signs reading “#reclaim MLK” and “This was not the dream.”
Activists such as Mariana Moscoso, a member of Sacramento #NoDAPL, the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline activist group, said preserving the American history of grass-roots activism is more important than ever.
“If (King) saw what was happening and how people are remembering him on MLK Day, he would roll over in his grave,” Moscoso said. “He hated capitalism, he stood up for justice against police, and these official events are hand-in-hand with corporate interests and corrupt institutions.”
The #ReclaimMLK activists marched from two Safeway locations and met on the steps of the state Capitol to continue their rally. Their protest walk Monday was the first of a series of weeklong protest events, dubbed “144 hours of action,” leading up to Friday’s presidential inauguration.
Yet another march took place in North Sacramento, where about 300 to 400 students, parents and community members took to the streets, starting at Grant Union High School in the struggling Del Paso Heights neighborhood. Carrying handmade signs saying “No Justice, No Peace” and “The time is always right to do what is right,” they opted not to join the traditional downtown celebration, saying it was more crucial to honor King’s activist legacy by focusing on issues they see in their neighborhood: racial profiling, lack of jobs for young people, potential loss of health care under the Affordable Care Act and sometimes strained relationships with police.
Calling it “a march, not a parade,” Grant Principal Darris Hinson urged an early-morning crowd in the school’s gym to not forget King’s true legacy. When the civil rights leader talked about having a dream, Hinson said, it was about taking action. “That’s what today is all about. Dreaming about what change can look like ... and then acting on it.”
Led by Grant Union’s marching band, a crowd of students, parents and community residents then embarked on a two-hour walk that took them through some of the city’s grittiest neighborhoods surrounding the campus.
Hinson, a 1988 Grant High graduate, called on businesses to do more hiring of teens and adults in North Sacramento, where unemployment is higher than the countywide average. Almost 40 percent of Del Paso Heights residents fell below the poverty line between 2011 and 2015, more than double the rate countywide, according to the U.S. census. The area’s median household income is about $34,000, or $22,000 less than the countywide level.
“When you don’t have businesses in your community, when you don’t have a lot of opportunities for kids to earn money legally, when you don’t have a lot of positive activities for kids to participate in, after school and outside of school, mischievous things will happen,” Hinson said.
The North Sacramento march was organized in conjunction with Roberts Family Development Center and Councilman Allen Warren, whose district includes Del Paso Heights and North Sacramento. Afterward, organizers held a wellness expo at Grant High with health screenings and a mobile mammogram truck, as well as booths with information on jobs, finances and scholarships.
“We want to change the trajectory in our community,” said Dr. Gina Warren, a clinical pharmacist who organized the wellness event. “In so many studies, it shows that where you live – your ZIP code – defines your health and well-being. We want to change that narrative.”
The Del Paso Heights event and the MLK365 march were permitted by the city, but the #ReclaimMLK rally did not obtain a permit, said Sacramento Police Department spokesman Matt McPhail. The department was aware of all three groups and had officers stationed with each, even if police had not been requested, he said.
The police closed streets along a roughly three-mile route for the MLK365 group, and later blocked off a section of J Street for about 20 minutes to let Black Lives Matter protesters walk to the Capitol safely.
“Our biggest focus is to ensure no one gets hurt, irrespective of what the message is,” he said. “Anarchists, white supremacists, you name it – our job is to ensure they’re safely able to express their beliefs.”
There was one arrest related to the event, a Sacramento man who was detained around noon for fighting in public inside the convention center after the MLK365 march, police said.
Joshua Kennedy, 23, fought another man at a diversity expo, then continued the dispute outside, McPhail said.
Kennedy continued to fight until officers separated the two by striking him with a Taser and detaining him, McPhail said. Kennedy was not injured, but was taken to a hospital as a precaution, police said.
“He will likely be cited for a misdemeanor and released,” McPhail said.
Mark Noyes, a 50-year-old Sacramento resident who attended the main parade and then joined the Black Lives Matter protesters at the Capitol, said he thinks both styles of honoring King have a place in Sacramento.
“The message needs to be that there is a commercialization of the main march, and this one covers a lot more that the other does not,” he said of the Black Lives Matter event. “The other one is more of a Rose Parade and festival – that has its place, but so does this. We need both.”
As the crowds filtered out of the convention center with bags of sponsorship goodies collected from the post-march diversity expo, organizer Starks said it was still the largest MLK Day in the event’s 36-year history, protests aside.
“They’ve got problems with SMUD, with the police, with everybody,” Starks said of the Black Lives Matter group. “But that’s not what we’re about. We can’t turn hate for hate. I choose love.”
The Bee’s Jessica Hice, Robin Opsahl and Phillip Reese contributed to this report.