Erika D. Smith

She might not be the leader Sacramento wants, but she’s the leader Sacramento needs

‘Every time the sheriff gets on the news, he talks about me,’ Black Lives Matter leader says

Tanya Faison leads protesters down Stockton Boulevard toward Fruitridge. Dozens of drivers were forced to take an unscheduled detour.
Up Next
Tanya Faison leads protesters down Stockton Boulevard toward Fruitridge. Dozens of drivers were forced to take an unscheduled detour.

It was a sunny Saturday in October when Tanya Faison, founder of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, brought a bullhorn to her lips and a hush fell over the crowd of protesters. They knew it was almost time to make the risky march down Stockton Boulevard.


Police could show up. They could get arrested. Angry drivers could try to run them over, like that white supremacist did to protesters in Charlottesville, Va.

“I’m probably going to be on the sidewalk most of the time,” Faison told everyone, noting her infamous reputation with law enforcement. “But I encourage people to take the street. That’s why we’re here.”

As the protesters fanned out across Stockton, blocking traffic and chanting “we got no love for the po po,” Faison stepped into the street, too – and she marched there for miles.

This is what you need to know about Tanya Faison: She’s fearless. Some would say reckless or impetuous or temperamental. Others would say stubborn or short-sighted. Depending on the day, some or all of that might be true.

What’s also true is that because of her refusal to shut up and accept the status quo, we have a community that demands more from its law enforcement agencies than ever before.

Consider the fallout from the shooting of Joseph Mann. The Sacramento Police Department announced this past week that it had wrapped up its internal investigation into the case and that the two officers who killed Mann in hail of bullets in Del Paso Heights last summer are no longer with the department. Most likely, they were forced out, which is saying something since only three sworn officers have been outright fired in the last 10 years.

We also now have a City Council that gives the Police Department 30 days to release videos of officer-involved shootings, and the Office of Public Safety Accountability has been tweaked so it has more autonomy to conduct civilian investigations.

Sure, a lot these reforms were crafted by hardworking politicians, who were determined to prevent another mentally ill man from getting shot like Mann did – or Dazion Flenaugh did. But the reforms also were enacted because of the relentless outrage about the case coming from Faison and Black Lives Matter Sacramento. Remember when they shut down I and J streets with a march at rush hour? If you didn’t know who Joseph Mann was before then, you did after that.

“I need to be in this space doing what I’m doing in the way that I do it,” Faison explained.

Indeed, in the three years that she has been waging a public relations war on what she sees as a deep-seated culture of police brutality in Sacramento, playing it safe has never been in Faison’s playbook.

She’s known around town as the woman who organizes noisy protests on the front lawns of politicians and holds candlelight vigils for black men and women killed by police in their neighborhoods.

She won’t hesitate to interrupt a speech or a public meeting, usually to demand more accountability and community oversight of the Sacramento Police Department. And starting next month, she is leading Black Lives Matter protesters to challenge Sacramento County’s Board of Supervisors in the same way, which is sure to add fuel to her feud with outgoing Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones.

But who is Faison beyond the bullhorn-wielding rabble-rouser? And what in the world would possess someone to make enemies out of hundreds of people who carry guns for a living?

At at only about 5 feet tall, I can tell you Faison is a surprisingly soft-spoken and kind 43-year-old who is nothing like the threatening person her critics frequently describe. She grew up in south Sacramento, first near Florin Gardens, then in Oak Park and finally in Curtis Park, and she graduated from McClatchy High School.

She remembers living in neighborhoods with low-income housing. Faison’s mom, who is Greek, raised her and her younger brother, but her dad, who was black, wasn’t around much. He died a few years ago.

Faison says she doesn’t hide her biracial heritage, but she also doesn’t go out of her way to “exotify myself to appease white folks by letting them know I’m mixed. When I’m out, I know I’m being looked at as a black person.”

It was a case out of Inglewood in 2002 that really brought her identity into focus. A man named Mitchell Crooks had recorded a cop slamming a black teen named Donovan Jackson onto the trunk of a police car. Because Crooks was from Sacramento, the story aired on the local news.

“He was so tiny and his dad was there, and he couldn’t do nothing,” Faison said, a pained expression spreading across her face. “That angered me. I was like, ‘These kinds of things can’t happen.’ 

From then on, Faison decided she wanted to fight against police violence. In 2014, she did just that, starting a nonprofit around the time Mike Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Then Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies shot a black man named Adrienne Ludd in October 2015 in Carmichael. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office cleared all three deputies involved, but Faison and Ludd’s relatives have continued to insist they used excessive force.

“When Adrienne Ludd was killed, Alicia Garza, who is one of the (Oakland-based) co-founders of Black Lives Matter, put out a post on Facebook saying, ‘Is there anyone fighting against the police in Sacramento?’ A whole bunch of people tagged me in that post.” Eventually, Faison’s nonprofit, Incite Insight, became a chapter of Black Lives Matter.

These days, Faison works a full-time tech job to pay the bills and, in her spare time, “tries to bring black joy and black healing to black neighborhoods.”

It’s a lot more than just protests. It’s making sure the families of black people who have been killed by police feel supported, whether it’s mowing their lawn or offering a shoulder to cry on or throwing a baby shower. It’s also doing research to push for changes to policies, ranging from those that govern law enforcement to those that enable gentrification – especially in Oak Park, which Faison still calls home.

Not everyone appreciates her help or the help of Black Lives Matter. “Some families don’t like us,” she said. It’s the same with others in Sacramento, many of them with big names and titles, who want the fight for justice to be more civil and orderly.

Faison can be so brash, so pushy and so unapologetic that I’ve heard more than a few people wonder behind closed doors why the black community – as if we were some monolithic being – doesn’t just denounce her. Sheriff Jones was bold enough to put the sentiment in writing and share it with reporters.

“In my opinion, there are far more responsible, effective voices for the African American community here in Sacramento than you, Ms. Faison,” Jones wrote in July, apparently clueless that, as a white man, it’s not really his place to tell black people whom to choose as leaders. “In fact, there is nothing local law enforcement can ever do that will earn your approval.”

On that last point, Jones probably has a point. But he misses the larger point that every movement needs someone who is uncompromising to drive change. It’s like the esteemed Sacramento native Cornel West once told me about Colin Kaepernick: “The movement doesn’t have to have just one leader. We’re a people of many leaders.”

Faison gets that and so I have hope for Sacramento.

“I want everyone to fight in the way that they fight,” Faison said, “because I feel like we’re going to be more powerful when we can agree to disagree and still fight together.”

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith