Tanya Faison, the leader of the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter, strolled casually in flip-flops through the streets of downtown last week, a water bottle in one hand and the other occasionally raised in a fist above her head.
Around her, a crowd of more than 100 protesters chanted, wielded signs and blocked traffic. She let the impulsive energy rule until she stopped to wave at inmates in the main jail and people started passing her.
"Get behind Tanya," her helpers on the front line yelled. "Get behind Tanya."
Without hesitation, they did.
In the wake of the police shooting of Stephon Clark on March 18, national media attention has focused on emotional multitudes filling Sacramento streets, often seeming on the edge of violence. But Faison and four other community activists — Jamier Sale, Berry Accius, Les Simmons and Ryan McClinton — have been leading these events with a level of organization and influence that belies the apparent chaos and volatility.
Even as marchers have confronted police, this small and loosely affiliated group has been directing, watching and intervening to keep the peace while still creating enough tension to disrupt "business as usual" and allow protesters to vent, they said.
"When it's our event, I try to keep charge of it," Faison said. "My thing is, let's do what we want to do but let's do it in a way that we're going to be safe, and let's think before we do things."
Besides planning rallies and marches, Faison and the others walk the crowd, pulling aside people in heated moments, watching for agitators and keeping messages on point. They have stood between police and protesters screaming inches from their riot shields, kept a close eye on unfamiliar faces joining what is usually a tight-knit community of activists and stood back when they believed the wave of outrage wouldn't crest into mayhem, they said.
"If we are opening the space, we are expecting people to bring that pain, and we are accepting that people are going to express that in different ways, but we want to balance that with being constructive and making sure we don't do things that distract from our message. It's a delicate balance," said Sale.
Sacramento Police Department spokeswoman Linda Matthew said the department didn't have any direct contact with organizers like Faison but has taken a "hands-off approach" to recent demonstrations.
"We pretty much just let them run the event on their own, and we just monitor their safety, the public safety that's around them, and then make sure property is not being damaged," Matthew said.
Police have been restrained when faced with protesters, and in some cases have moved away rather than continue confrontations.
Sacramento County Sheriff's Department spokesman Shaun Hampton declined to comment on whether the department thinks Faison and others are helpful at protests. But Sheriff Scott Jones has been vocal in his dislike for Faison, publishing a letter in August asserting "there are far more responsible, effective voices for the African American community here in Sacramento than you." Sacramento police in 2016 challenged her account of a shooting at a nightclub.
Sale also has a tenuous relationship with law enforcement. He has been involved in helping his sister, activist Maile Hampton, fight a 2015 felony "lynching" charge that stemmed from an incident where she attempted to intervene while a Sacramento police officer was arresting a protester. California law since 1933 defined "lynching" as attempting to remove a person from lawful police custody. The case prompted state legislators to remove the "lynching" term from the law.
Most recently, Jones said the local events included paid protesters — a claim all five dispute.
"I push back against that because (people) are sacrificing their time away from their families and putting their own safety on the line," said McClinton. "Paid protesters, that's not Sacramento."
While Black Lives Matter has focused on downtown protests, Sale and his Act Now to Stop War and Racism Coalition (Answer) have been responsible for many of the events in the Meadowview area, including a protest on March 31 where a participant was hit by a Sheriff's Department vehicle.
Sale, 26, is the youngest of the group but has been politically active in Sacramento since 2013. He has advocated for a diverse range of causes including police reform, pro-Palestinian issues and increasing the minimum wage. His events are easily identified by a sound system carried on a wheelchair that he pushes along his routes.
"The biggest thing we try to do is minimize contact with police," said Sale. "We aren’t going to march into police. If the police are lined up in front of the sheriff’s station and we are lined up on the street, we are not going to send people over there."
Accius lives in south Sacramento, where Clark was shot, and is a chef and caterer who founded nonprofit Voices of Youth to help kids in the area.
"When I see it going to the point where one of these two sides, it could be the police or the protesters, are losing it, I make sure I step in," said Accius.
Simmons, the son of a preacher, is pastor at the South Sacramento Christian Center and has long been active in economic and social work in the area to improve conditions, especially for black children.
"They call me out to be that voice of clergy, that moral support, that this is righteous work," said Simmons.
McClinton, 32, is a Sacramento native who works with advocacy organization Sacramento Area Congregations Together and became politically active about three years ago after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Trayvon Martin in Florida.
"For me, it’s a swirl of emotions because I feel the same pain and the same energy (as the protesters)," said McClinton. "When I see younger children out there, that’s where the concern kicks in. Even then it's less fear and more protection."
Despite their efforts, all five said that what they have is influence — not control.
"Things can unravel," said McClinton. "That still very well might happen. You can't control energy. You can't control pain. The best you can do is channel it."
Their limitations were apparent on March 22 when protesters shut down Interstate 5 before heading to Golden 1 Center and blocking Kings fans from entering the game.
"I don’t think anyone would say that was planned. I don’t think anyone would take credit for that plan if it was," said Sale. "It’s the momentum of the people."
That demonstration had moments of violence, including a broken car window and protesters surrounding bicycle officers.
"I did not have control of that crowd, and I did not want to," said Faison.
"In the end you saw the results. Now we've got legislators making legislation, and they weren't lobbied," she said, referring to Assembly Bill 931, introduced in the wake of the Clark shooting, which would curtail circumstances under which law enforcement can legally kill a suspect.
Order again dissolved Thursday night when two women were detained by Sacramento police after a tense confrontation outside the office of Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert during a demonstration. Police said the arrests came after a crowd surrounded a car in the parking lot, and the women failed to obey an order to disperse. Faison said the arrests came after the incident with the car. The confrontation led to a prolonged protest outside the nearby main jail.
As the headlines on Clark now begin to fade, Simmons said they are increasingly focused on utilizing the energy around Clark to push for larger agendas — social issues they say are the deeper roots of problems between police and minority communities.
"As a result of Stephon Clark, people have very skillfully understood not only the shooting that took place … but they’ve understood everything leading up to that that causes our communities to be in the state they are in," said Simmons.
While they all are quick to say they collaborate, not coordinate, the five see their goals as interwoven. Accius, Simmons and McClinton are working on equity issues for communities like Meadowview, including more economic development, more city money for services and facilities and better educational and work opportunities.
Faison is focusing on accountability in Clark's shooting, upcoming elections for the sheriff and district attorney, and statewide legislation on policing reforms, among other items. Sale has the most radical agenda, pushing for a move toward socialism.
"Stephon Clark is just the smoke, and everything else is the fire," said Accius. "If we got justice for Stephon Clark, we would still have systems in place that need change. I was prepared, just as my other colleagues were, so when the moment happened, it was like, 'OK, here we go.'"