New activists create challenges – and opportunity – for Black Lives Matter

Brianna Cormier, a recent graduate of Valley High School, couldn’t stop watching the viral video showing what happened after a police officer shot an African American man during a traffic stop in Minnesota more than a week ago.

Like many Americans – 5.7 million have viewed the video so far – she was transfixed by cellphone footage taken in the car by his girlfriend, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, and posted on Facebook.

It shows Philando Castile struggling to breathe as blood seeps across his white T-shirt. A gun points at him through the open window, the officer appearing as a uniform with no face. In the back seat is Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter.

“I watched it over and over and over,” Cormier said.

Despite having little experience with political activism, Cormier and two friends planned a rally via Facebook that drew about 350 people to the Capitol on Monday. It was one of a half-dozen events that took place in Sacramento after a string of violent days nationally that included the Castile death, another fatal law-enforcement shooting of a black man in Louisiana and the killing of five police officers by a sniper in Texas.

Like their protest, much of what happened on streets locally and across the nation began on social media and involved people with little activist experience.

They came from different races, different places and often had varying – sometimes contradictory – messages.

No justice, no peace. Shut it down. All lives matter. Revolution or bust. Police are people, too.

To much of the viewing public, they were all Black Lives Matter, a phrase that has become cultural shorthand for dissent of law enforcement actions against African Americans.

But they weren’t. Not most of them, anyway.

While Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a social movement, it is also an organization with nearly 40 formal chapters nationwide. Even Cormier and her friends didn’t know the difference between the slogan and the group until the local BLM chapter asked them to stop using its name.

“Having to explain to people over and over again, having to explain to the media over and over again, ‘That’s not us,’ that’s always a challenge,” said Tanya Faison, founder of Sacramento Black Lives Matter. Faison said she was inundated with questions about Cormier’s event by people who thought BLM was organizing it.

She said she asked Cormier and her friends to change the name of their event to stop the inquiries and because she didn’t know who they were or what their message would be.

“They haven’t been doing this work like we have, so they don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

Confusion between the Black Lives Matter organization and the movement isn’t just a local problem. Nationally, as BLM marked its third anniversary last week, clarity diminishes as participation grows.

While numbers make the movement stronger, surges of neophytes make it hard to keep the organization’s identity and message focused. It highlights an ongoing debate born out of the Occupy movement about the value and consequences of social media in political activism.

Can you own a name when it’s become a slogan? Is there a way to protect its intent when it means different things to different people? Should you try?

“The movement itself is not something we can or want to own,” said Donielle Prince, another leader of the Sacramento BLM chapter. “(A) certain amount of patience is needed on our part … to keep explaining the difference between the movement and the organization with the specific name.”

Activists focus on three cases

The Sacramento group has been part of the national Black Lives Matter network since November, Prince said. It has a membership of about 10 core activists and 30 others who show up occasionally, but it can draw many times that number to events though relationships with other social justice groups.

Prince said that in Sacramento, Black Lives Matter is focused on three law enforcement shootings of African American men since October – Adriene Ludd, Dazion Flenaugh and Joseph Mann. About 60 people attended the group’s protest Saturday outside Sacramento Police Department headquarters.

▪ Ludd was shot by sheriff’s deputies in October after a car chase that ended with him attempting to shoot at officers, according to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

▪ Flenaugh was shot in south Sacramento in April after escaping the back seat of a police car and being pursued. He was armed with a knife about 15 feet from police when he “verbally challenged” officers and was shot, police spokesman Sgt. Bryce Heinlein said at the time.

▪ Mann was shot Monday on Del Paso Boulevard in Sacramento. Described by his brother in an Associated Press interview as homeless and mentally ill, Mann was also armed with a knife.

In each case, BLM Sacramento is asking for greater transparency, including the release of video footage and police reports.

They have especially focused on the Ludd case. Nine months after the incident, the investigation remains open, an autopsy report has not been released and Sheriff Scott Jones has declined to release video.

A spokeswoman for the Sacramento Police Department said reports in the Mann and Flenaugh cases are not available because the investigations are ongoing.

Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Turnbull added that his agency was “not required to provide” some of the information requested by Black Lives Matter, such as video footage. A report by county Inspector General Rick Braziel is expected in coming weeks and will be publicly available.

“We have been extremely transparent in regards to the case they are citing. ... We have provided the facts of the case from the very beginning and those facts have not changed,” he said.

To Prince and others, that isn’t enough.

“Perhaps it is a justified shooting,” Prince said. “Simply disclose all the data. ... That would increase community trust.”

Prince said her group works to counter the idea that Sacramento has been largely immune to the policing issues that have caused concern in cities such as Chicago and Ferguson, Mo.

“Police brutality is a local issue in Sacramento,” she said. “It’s a systemic problem, so there is no place in the U.S. that is exempt.”

Police have shot and killed 12 people in the four-county Sacramento area since January 2015, according to a Bee analysis. Four of the victims were Latino, four were white and four were black.

In two incidents involving the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, one victim was black, Ludd. The other was white – Sergey Makarenko, who was shot after a car chase.

The Sacramento Police Department was responsible for three officer-involved deaths in that period. In addition to Flenaugh and Mann, officers shot Matthew Coates, a white man, after responding to a domestic disturbance in Tahoe Park.

Almost 290 people have been killed by California police in 2015 and 2016, according to a tracking database compiled by The Guardian newspaper.

That translates to about 5.3 officer-involved deaths in the Sacramento region per 1 million people during 2015 and 2016, lower than the statewide rate of 7.4 officer-involved deaths per 1 million people.

Faison said shootings aren’t the only metric that should be used to evaluate local police behavior. Issues such as profiling and use of force show a larger picture, and community feedback can highlight history and the kinds of daily interactions that don’t leave records, she said.

“Not only do we have that problem here … we are an extreme version of the problem,” Prince said.

The local Black Lives Matter chapter is also working on social justice issues unrelated to police brutality.

Leaders have been speaking with the Elk Grove Unified School District after student Nyree Holmes was escorted out of his graduation in May for wearing an African cultural cloth, Faison said. The district has been “very great” in discussing how to revise the dress policy and examine law enforcement involvement at schools, she said.

The group is also conducting outreach in Oak Park, where Faison grew up, to assess community needs and attitudes as gentrification continues to change the area.

Backlash for embracing police

Despite protests on social justice issues organized by Faison and Prince earlier this month, though, few people caught mention of those priorities. It was two police shootings in other cities that drew the most attention, those of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Castile near St. Paul, Minn.

The spontaneous events that followed drew a passionate response against police actions – and against the influx of new supporters.

Within hours of their Monday protest at the Capitol, Cormier and her two partners faced a backlash. On social media, activists from other local groups attacked them for being too pro-law enforcement.

“People were just upset about how we went about it peacefully ... that we invited the police to be part of future events,” Cormier said.

Hillari Jackson, another organizer of the Monday event, said: “We are not anti-cop. We are not anti-white. We are not anti-anything. We believe all lives matter, but we want it to be understood that when you say that, black lives are included.”

A 23-year-old makeup artist with three children, Jackson said her perspective comes from being a mother. When she watched the Castile video, she was struck by the composure of the woman filming it. She attributes it to the child in the back seat.

“As a mother I sympathize with her. ... I know what the feeling is when you have to remain calm,” she said.

But with two black sons, she said she wants change.

“It could be them when they grow up,” she said. “I don’t want it to be like that.”

During the Monday event, police were friendly with protesters, taking photos and instructing the crowd on protocols for marching down Capitol Mall. At the Capitol, organizers offered thanks and a round of applause for the California Highway Patrol and Sacramento Police Department officers present.

“They invited our officers into kind of the inner sanctum of their rally,” said Sacramento Police Department spokesman Matthew McPhail. “It wasn’t this confrontational us vs. them atmosphere. It was much more collaborative.”

Jamejha Hall, the third organizer of the event and an 18-year-old Valley High senior, said that is the approach she favors. While she believes police reform is necessary and has a specific list of changes she’d like to see, including regular psychological evaluations of officers, she said that we “can’t work against officers. We have to tell them what we want and what we need to see change to become a better country.”

With the shooting of five police officers in Dallas by a sniper at a BLM protest, that stance resonated with many. Just as Black Lives Matter was building mainstream support after the Minnesota and Louisiana shootings, the Dallas killings prompted criticism that the group had incited the violence. The national organization quickly moved to distance itself from the tragedy.

“There are some who would use these events to stifle a movement for change and quicken the demise of a vibrant discourse on the human rights of Black Americans,” the national BLM said in a statement. “We should reject all of this.”

While condemning the actions of the lone gunman in Dallas, many BLM members didn’t want to soften.

Jackson said people posted on social media accusing Hall of being a “cop lover.” The comments became so bad, the group took down its event page on Facebook, she said.

Maile Hampton was one of the local activists who posted on the page before it was removed. She often protests against police brutality and believes that “police can never be trusted,” she said.

Last year, Hampton drew widespread coverage after she was arrested for “lynching” for trying to free a protester from police custody during a Capitol Mall protest. That charge was ultimately dropped by Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who said the lynching accusation was “racially charged and inflammatory.”

“The system does need to go,” Hampton said. “And if that’s by revolution, if that’s peacefully, it’s whatever the state makes the people do.”

On Facebook, she told Cormier, Jackson and Hall that she thought their promise to keep the march silent and remove those with differing viewpoints was “unprofessional and outright shameful and disgusting. This is a bunch of liberal bs trying to please cops and news.”

Taken together, the four women show how far the spectrum of the Black Lives Matter movement extends, from reconciliation with law enforcement to antipathy for the system.

Dissent within a burgeoning political movement is nothing new, though.

“That goes all the way back to the civil rights movements,” said Jamier Sale, Hampton’s brother and an activist with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, another organization that protests police brutality.

He said creating real-world connections with new supporters is vital to the local movement.

“Social media is a great tool, but at the end of the day, relationships are what make up the movement,” Sale said. “It takes cooperation from all those different people.”

Unlike larger cities where social media anonymity can be hard to overcome, Sacramento is a town with a strong, established network of activists who know each other and communicate. They turn out regularly for events, regardless of the group organizing it or the cause. And online, most are at least friends of friends.

Steven Payan, founder of the local branch of the Brown Berets, a Latino activist group, said loose solidarity makes the city different. He said that cooperation largely came out of the Occupy movement, which brought many local activists in touch for the first time.

“To say what everyone is fighting for is a shade of gray,” Payan said. “But a lot of people share the same ideology. ... These are not just black people issues or brown people issues. These are working-class issues.”

When newcomers such as Cormier spring up, established activists notice.

Sale and Faison said they believed Cormier and her friends had good intentions, and Sale said he is following them on Facebook to see what they do next. Faison sees recent events as an opportunity to “educate,” and Hampton said despite her differing view, the goal is to “organize, organize, organize” as many new recruits as possible.

“(R)egardless of what your opinion is on the more minute matters, we can all agree on a set of principles,” Sale said. “At the end of the day, our goal is unity.”

Black Lives Matter Sacramento held its first public meeting Saturday to respond to the surge of interest and meet some of those new activists. More than 1,000 said they were going on Facebook.

Prince said she doesn’t expect that many people to join her organization, but she hopes they join the movement, whatever it means to them.

“What we want is for them to follow their feelings and stay involved in the level they are comfortable with,” she said. “There is a place for everyone, and we just hope that no one goes back to the couch.”

The Bee’s Phillip Reese and Ed Fletcher contributed to this report.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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