Black Lives Matter protesters raise their voices for George Floyd in Santa Monica

Story by Meera Sastry | Edited by Christina Campodonico and Kevin Uhrich

Photo courtesy of Zee James | Photo by @jasonryanphoto

Among George Floyd’s last words on May 25 were “I can’t breathe.” Spoken as a white police officer (since charged with second-degree murder) pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, that final cry has reverberated across America, spurring passionate displays of public protest and reigniting the Black Lives Matter movement against the menace of police brutality and the backdrop of a global pandemic.

On Sunday, May 31, that wave of energy crested in Santa Monica as approximately 150 protesters peacefully assembled at the corner of Ocean and Montana avenues and made their way to the foot of the Santa Monica Pier, where a tense standoff with police occurred as organized looters ravaged the city’s downtown businesses and curfew fell.

The Santa Monica Police Department reported no loss of life or serious injuries from the civil unrest.

The Argonaut spoke with protesters who were on the ground about their experiences and how they made their voices heard amid the noise.

— Christina Campodonico, Editor – The Argonaut

Violet Scott-Street

Violet Scott-Street is a student activist at Santa Monica High School. She used Instagram to raise awareness of Sunday’s protest as well as to organize a cleanup effort the morning after.

Scott-Street is half-Black, and was motivated to protest by the racism she has personally experienced growing up in Santa Monica. “The fact that we have a movement here encouraging a new standard for society and a new normal of holding police accountable and having value in the life of a Black man or woman, it’s something I need to be a part of, because it affects me too, and it affects everyone who has melanin in their skin,” she says. “Now that we’re getting more people involved [in Black Lives Matter], especially white allies, I think it’s a really important time to be standing up for the Black community and to be saving lives.”

Scott-Street was surprised that a Black Lives Matter protest would be held in Santa Monica, but happy to see the solidarity in the community. “I’m used to being the token Black person, and white people not giving a sh*t about the Black community because it doesn’t affect them, but seeing that people are showing empathy is really incredible,” she says.

“I do see the racist side of my wealthy, white neighborhood, but I also see the side of people who want change and want justice in this world, and it’s incredible to see all the good that comes out of my neighborhood and all the people who support the movement.”

Scott-Street is resolutely pro-peaceful protest and encouraged those protesting alongside her to stay nonviolent and avoid any damage to her neighborhood. At the protest, she marched up and down Ocean Avenue and knelt for moments of silence to honor George Floyd and other victims of police brutality.

Despite the solidarity present in the protest, she did hear negative responses from some Santa Monica residents. “A lot of the people living on Montana didn’t want us… there,” she says. “We had people yelling out of windows at us about protesting; they thought it was stupid and they wanted us to get out of their neighborhood. That was upsetting, but we were entirely peaceful.”

Although Scott-Street’s movement was entirely peaceful, she witnessed some of the looting and property damage in downtown Santa Monica, and was frustrated by it and the response from police. “We realized that these aren’t protesters that are looting, or even from Santa Monica,” she says. “It was really upsetting to see the police officers focused on getting rid of our peaceful movement while the looters weren’t being litigated at all.”

“The police didn’t make any arrests or do anything,” she says. “They just let the people looting run off with boxes of shoes and stuff.” Scott-Street characterized the looters as opportunistic. “They were obviously not from Santa Monica. They saw this protest as an excuse.”

On Monday, Scott-Street organized a clean-up of the downtown area, and was bolstered by the show of community support she saw there. “Seeing everyone come out, it proves that we [the protesters] weren’t the people looting. Why would we loot and then come clean up?”

Jon Benward

Jon Benward, a Black resident of Venice, saw the protests happening in real time as he walked back from grocery shopping and decided to join with his roommate. Although first joining out of curiosity, he was glad to have been present at the demonstration.

Benward was present on the streets in front of the Santa Monica Pier as police and protesters stood off in front of the iconic landmark on Sunday. “There was tear gas coming into the crowd, but no one was throwing anything at the cops,” Benward says. “It was just a passionate — and understandable — frustration [on the part of the protesters].”

After seeing the tactics of the police firsthand, Benward feels that the amount of force used was unnecessary. “It got out of hand only because the tactical response was that of confronting a terrorist group,” he says. “There was a barricade lined up; they were shooting rubber bullets — like paintballs full of lead, the shape of a 9mm — basically bullets themselves. It could have easily taken someone out if shot from a close enough distance.”

Benward continues to describe not only violence on the part of the police but a total lack of care for the protesters’ lives. “I saw a lot of people get shot [with rubber bullets], and what was worse, I didn’t see anyone from the police come over to help anyone who had been hit,” he says. “It seemed like there was just a wave of rubber bullets and tear gas.”

Benward condemns the police reaction wholeheartedly. “It was a protest about aggression, and they were being aggressive to people who didn’t do anything,” he says. “Before the tear gas and the rubber bullets and them boxing us in, there was no violence. It was completely unwarranted.”

Benward stayed at the protest until around 7 p.m. Though curfews were announced by the city of Santa Monica, he saw that it would have been impossible for all protesters to obey them.

“There was no way, from how cops were blocking everyone on Pico Boulevard, for anyone to disperse calmly,” Benward says. “There was no way for anyone to reasonably get home in the time between the announcements and the curfew. And when the curfew went out, there was still tear gas going into a crowd of people walking away from the altercation. They were gassing no matter what.”

Kendall Dees

Kendall Dees is a resident of Brentwood who went to the protest with her family, arriving at its start around noon and staying for about an hour and a half. She and the protest group she was with walked up and down Ocean Avenue, peacefully chanting and holding signs.

“It was a very diverse crowd, and it made me really happy to see such a unified group that was so peaceful,” Dees says. “There was a sense of community between people of all backgrounds and races, and that was the most hopeful part of the day for me.”

Dees says she and her family left the protest shortly after the line of police was set up.

“It was pretty unsettling, considering the fact that it was a peaceful protest, but I guess it must have been precautionary,” Dees says about the police presence she witnessed. She acknowledges that her privilege as a white woman from Brentwood likely made it easier for her to avoid any conflict with the police, although she says she wishes they would have reacted differently to the protests.

“I almost wanted them to say something in solidarity with the protesters, or acknowledge that it was peaceful, but instead they just felt like a menacing presence,” she says. “I wanted them to at least say something like ‘we’re here keeping you safe’, not ‘we’re here policing you’.”

Elliott Hyon

Elliott Hyon is a resident of the San Fernando Valley who heard about the protest on social media and went with a friend. He describes some confusion when it came to the organization of it, but says that he was eager to take action: “Everything that was being organized was done without much notice, and it was difficult to figure out where we would be going, but once we did figure it out, we made sure to get there.”

Hyon was motivated to protest in order to demonstrate racial solidarity. “For me, as a member of an Asian-American community, it’s important for us to remember that Black people have been there for us, and have defended us against racist attacks,” he says. “To not do the same and to act like the police have ever been on our side, is a complete lie. We should be doing everything we can do uplift and support Black voices and Black lives.”

Upon arriving in Santa Monica around 3 p.m., Hyon was struck by the disparity in attitudes between people participating in protests and those seemingly unaffected.

“I saw people picnicking, going to the beach, seemingly without any care in the world,” he says. “Then we got to the protest, where there was a face-off against the police, and there was a lot of tension in the air. It felt like two different worlds, or two different Americas, to see people so removed from it and then people directly involved.”

Hyon did not witness any violent interactions with the police firsthand, but felt that police were moving protest groups around. “The police made a blockade, and might have actually blocked off the protesters into smaller groups, because we could see tear gas in the distance.”

He also witnessed members of the protest calling on police to join protesters, but did not feel as if it would be effective, given the nature of the protest as one against police brutality.

“We started kneeling, and people were chanting to the police to sit with us,” he says.

“Personally, I don’t feel that police will be on our side, but maybe people wanted to see some clemency even though they are upholding a system that holds Black people down.”

Zee James

Zee James is a Black woman and a long-term resident of Santa Monica whose partner heard about the protests while out on a jog. She joined the protest from noon to around 1:15 p.m., and marched peacefully, kneeling for moments of silence and chanting the names of those killed by police.

Although James did not interact with the police, she witnessed who she believed to be looters, and condemns their actions. “I saw outside of my building a number of young people returning to their cars with clearly stolen goods like boxes of sneakers, new clothes and backpacks,” she says. “The most discouraging part to me is that so many of these people clearly drive for Uber and Lyft. I hope they get caught. I hope they get fired.”

Despite the presence of looters, James’ experience at the protest was positive. “I felt like we were one. My partner is Caucasian, but he gets how hard it is for the Black community, and he was not alone.”