By Pedro Hernandez
Protests erupted throughout the country after May 25, 2020 when George Floyd, a 46-year old African American man was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd was alleged to have used a fake twenty-dollar bill to pay for cigarettes.
After being confronted by the Minneapolis Police, multiple video recordings show an officer forcing his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he had died. He repeatedly told the officers “I can’t breathe.”
Since then, there has been a renewed attention paid to racism and excessive force used by law enforcement officers, especially as many police interactions are recorded on cell phones and spread through social media. Both peaceful and disruptive protests occurred in every state of the country, and many community members have seen news coverage of the protests compete with updates for the coronavirus pandemic.
On June 2oth, roughly 40 residents from throughout Tulare County gathered at the Bob Felt’s Soccer Field for Ivanhoe’s first Black Lives Matter Solidarity March. The event was organized by Linda and Maribel Marquez, two Ivanhoe residents, who wanted to bring local attention to the national issues of police brutality and unjust deaths at the hands of law enforcement throughout the Country.
The purpose of the Ivanhoe Solidarity March according to the organizers was to “stand up to racism and bring awareness to what is happening” and to “start a dialogue as to how we as a community can do better.”
Community members like Ivanhoe Community Council chairperson, Mayra Becerra, attended to support the local dialogue around racism and police accountability in the country. Becerra says, “It’s not fair to any parent who thinks their kid can die because of the race they are, because where they live, because my kids have asked ‘are we safe?” She continued, “How many officers, how many people are walking away, basically murdering people and not being held accountable?”
Alyssa Barba, another Ivanhoe resident who moved out from the community for college said, “I had no idea and I literally found out (about the protest) the day before. I’ve been protesting in LA every weekend and this weekend I took a break to visit my family (in Ivanhoe) for Father’s Day weekend.”
After meeting at the Bob Felts Soccer Field, the event organizers lead two marches throughout Ivanhoe. Despite some initial opposition from the announcement on the “You Know You’re From Ivanhoe” community Facebook Page, the protesters were greeted with thumbs up, waving, horn honking, and fists raised in the air. Only one community member visibly was upset at the protest.
The protesters shouted chants like “Black Lives Matter”, “Defund the Police”, “Justice on the right, peace on the left”, and, “Say their name” as a way to bring attention to African Americans like Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin who have been killed by law enforcement officers despite not breaking any laws themselves.
After the March, the participants gathered for speeches while maintaining social distancing. The event then peacefully ended.
But why was there a need for a march?
Both Sides of Black Lives Matter
The three words,”Black Lives Matter” have created a lot of confusion within the community. Interviews with Ivanhoe residents revealed that some say the name 1) distracts from the cause overall issue of addressing racial injustice, 2) is racist against non-blacks, or 3) is an important way to bring attention to a longer conversation about being a person of color in America.
This sentiment was captured by Ivanhoe community member Claudia Valencia who said, “so many people are focused on the name ‘Black Lives Matter’ and we aren’t even able to push through this to talk about racism in our community.”
Although there have been efforts to address racism and police accountability for decades, the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after the acquittal of police officer, George Zimmerman, in the February 2012 shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin.
According to the Black Lives Matter movement founders Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, “ Black Lives Matter began as a call to action in response to state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism.” They also say the name of the social movement “is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
Echoing this sentiment one Ivanhoe resident said of their cause, “It’s about a particular group of people that are being killed by an institution that is designed to protect and serve.” Members also say “All lives will not matter until black lives matter.”
However, the term “Black Lives Matter” has been interpreted as racist by some people as being only in favor of Black lives. But to the contrary, the term “Black Lives Matter ” was specifically chosen by the founders as a way to bring attention to the fact that historically they have been the most likely to suffer from police violence and incarceration.
For example in 2015, Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people. Additionally, according to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, the imprisonment rate of black males in 2018 was 5.8 times that of white males, while the imprisonment rate of black females was 1.8 times the rate of white females.
Community member Alyssa Barba stated, “of course all lives matter to us. But to others Black lives don’t matter if a certain population is getting killed at the hands of police, mass incarcerated, dying from gun violence at the hands of the state, being pushed out of schools, are being over policed, that means all lives don’t matter and it is evident their lives don’t matter.”
Locally the San Joaquin Valley has demonstrated the potential for excessive force against civilians. For example, just one hour south in Bakersfield an investigative report by The Guardian revealed the Bakersfield Police Department “have killed more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015.”One hour north In Fresno, the police department is currently being pushed to revisit the shootings of people like Isiah Murietta-Golding, an unarmed sixteen year old boy who was shot and killed by the police department in 2016.
Wave of Protests and Calls for Justice
This wave of protests has mostly remained peaceful, there has also been property destruction from protesters and direct violence from right-wing extremists.
Since the first major protests occurred after the death of George Floyd in late May, protests have occurred in nearly all major cities in California, thousands of residents including many smaller cities throughout the San Joaquin Valley like Visalia, Porterville, Selma, Bakersfield, Delano, Fresno, Merced and Madera. In Minneapolis where George Flyd was killed, protests occurred for over 20 counties days.
The San Joaquin Valley is experiencing a national trend where people who have reacted to protesters by using their vehicles as weapons. At the beginning of this increase in protests, the Southern San Joaquin Valley experienced two separate incidents where a vehicle intentionally hit protesters who were demonstrating in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
On May 30th, a driver in a blue Jeep hit two young protesters in Visalia. The next Monday, roughly 50 residents gathered to demand action at the Tulare County Courthouse and since then, Activists have urged the Tulare County Sheriffs to pursue an investigation. The case has been officially transferred to the Tulare County District Attorney, Tim Ward. The driver of the vehicle still has not been charged with any crimes.
In Bakersfield, a similar incident occurred where one protester, Robert George, was struck by a vehicle while attempting to cross the street. He was taken to the hospital where he remained in intensive care before passing away on June 14th. Similarly to the incident in Visalia, there have been no charges filed on the driver of the vehicle.
New research from the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats, concludes that since May, there has been an increase in right-wing extremists using their cars as weapons against Black Lives Matter protesters. In the last six weeks there have been at least 50 reports of incidents where protesters have been injured by vehicles. At the time of publication in mid-June, at least 18 of these incidents were categorized as deliberate and premeditated.
In response to these events, the representatives from the Tulare County Public Defender’s Office lead a protest in front of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department in order to call attention to the need to bring the driver of the vehicle to justice. The combination of Black Lives Matter and the local calls for justice lead to an increase in attention to law enforcement in local Tulare County cities including the Tulare County Sheriffs.
Tulare County Sheriff Boudreaux Comments on Black Lives Matter
Over the last month, community leaders throughout Tulare County have made public calls for increased accountability with the Tulare County Sheriffs.
For a rural community without a police force like Ivanhoe, the county Sheriffs serve the community for law enforcement related issues. The national attention on police misconduct shifted local attention to the Tulare County Sheriffs.
In response to the growing public pressure to reform law enforcement Tulare County, Sheriff Mike Boudreaux made a controversial statement on his Twitter account. This post said “For all those people who are hating cops across this nation. Just leave your name and address at your local police agency and let them know whenever you dial 911 or need emergency pixie services you no longer wish for them to respond to your calls for help.”
This outraged many Tulare County Residents who felt this behavior ruined trust between community members and law enforcement. Over the weeks of June 2nd and June 9th, and 16th many Tulare County Residents called or made comments in favor or against the Tulare Sheriff’s behavior.
When asked about the Sheriff Department’s responses , one Ivanhoe resident commented, “I’ve always been somebody who looks on the bright side, but it’s just very disappointing but not unexpected that it would be the reaction (of the sheriff)”.
Eventually, Sheriff Boudreaux apologized. On June 17th, Mike Boudreaux participated in a local radio station interview about his controversial statement and the efforts to stop law enforcement misconduct. The Sheriff commented, “No one hates a bad cop more than a good cop” and that “if I offended you, my intent was to focus on the hypocrisy that was happening.” On the topic of reducing excessive force Sheriff Boudreaux offered support to increasing social workers’ presence in mental health- related calls but admitted he is “not saying it’s going to be the best solution or the ideal solution.”
Issues and Lack of Trust in Ivanhoe
Although some residents of Ivanhoe report not ever having experienced an interaction with the Sheriffs where excessive force has occurred, other Ivanhoe residents expressed concerns with dependability or lack of trust with the Tulare County Sheriffs in the community.
For example, representatives of the Ivanhoe Community Council report they have repeatedly invited the Sheriff’s Department to address many of the concerns within the community. Chairperson Mayra Becerra says she has repeatedly reached out to the Sheriff department with invitations to their monthly community meetings. She says that even with this weekend’s March she had attempted to contact the Sheriff Department and the Sheriff Department has yet to officially respond to the notification.
While some identify the NFL youth program sponsored by the Tulare County Sheriffs in 2019 as an effort to connect with the community, some parents expressed dissatisfaction. Apparently, the Tulare Sheriffs did not fulfill their commitment. One parent said, “They don’t even know how to lie. We had one of them show up and said ‘he didn’t make it because he had a personal issue’ and the other one said “he didn’t make it because he’s working overtime.”
Many residents express frustration that their efforts to call the Sheriffs have been disappointing. Some residents have reported a dissatisfaction with lack of responsiveness to calls from Ivanhoe. For example, another Ivanhoe resident commented, “People have tried asking for help… We are paying them to sit at 160 and 328 and talk to each other.”
Many other residents displayed dissatisfaction and lack of trust that calling the Sheriffs would do anything if called. One commenter on the “You Know You’re From Ivanhoe” community page stated “I’ve lived in Ivanhoe last year. And you are right. I would call (the) sheriff for a gun going off, fireworks. Sometimes they came and others didn’t. Some good sheriffs and some real smart asses.”
Another remarked, “Called just now. All they said we will get someone out when they are available.” Another remarked, “Officers do not regularly stay very long in the community and lack the building of trust.”
Several residents have also reported stereotypes emerging in the community from the Sheriff’s past presence in the community.
Maribel Marquez reported thoughts like “I would never leave my house because the cops would never interact with us and I wasn’t scared of the community it was more like, ‘am I going to be stereotyped?’” These concerns were reinforced by observations like, “they don’t even smile when they drive by.”
One resident reported being harassed by the Sheriffs as a child. He said, “I remember being eleven years old and being pulled over just for riding a blue bike and a LA Kings jacket and I didn’t know anything about gangs back then.” He continued, “Our lifestyle was reinforced by them stereotyping us and pushing us towards that route.” The reputation of being from Ivanhoe was something that followed him around the county. He also said, “I can be with a whole bunch of other people that are gang members but just because I’m from Ivanhoe they’ll let everybody else go and say ‘you, come here.’”
Reforming Law Enforcement in California and Tulare County
Tulare County residents have increased calls for civilian oversight of the Tulare County Sheriffs.
In an open letter, Abigail Solis, a community advocate and member of the Earlimart School District wrote,” Police oversight and reinventing policing in America is a top concern for people of all walks of life, not only Latinos. Young people, old people, white and black people are actively engaging in this issue and they are paying close attention to their local law enforcement agencies. As the sheriff, you should embrace the idea of developing a board that can help your department to be transparent, provide you with the community’s perspective and offer suggestions for improvement and maybe this board can prevent you from sending out another ill worded tweet the next time you feel the urge to do so.”
Protesters are making demands to “defund the police”. According to them, police and sheriff departments receive large budget allocations that are geared towards treating the symptoms but not the root causes of crime like poverty, lack of adequate medical access, and environmental pollution.
These and other demands from Black and youth led protests have led to results for police reform in California.
For example, the city of Los Angeles moved over $100 million from the police department to community programs. The city of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, voted to explore dissolving the police department to create a new community safety program.
Fresno is the most notable local example where police reform efforts are advancing in the San Joaquin Valley. The city recently banned chokeholds and has even created a 37-member Police Reform Commission. Fresno has also indicated willingness to treat issues like homelessness and mental health crisis primarily with health care professionals who have adequate training.
The city recently voted 5 to 1 in order to allocate $300,000 of their general funds to the Advance Peace Program. This program offers an alternative method to address gun violence in communities that relies on community healing over increasing police presence. A statement released by the City of Fresno says, “In this moment of re-imagining what it means to truly provide public safety for all Fresno communities and residents, this is a critical step forward.”
Many residents in the community look forward to positive change.
Towards a Better Ivanhoe
Despite this background, many attendees of Ivanhoe’s first Black Lives Matter protest left hopeful for change in their communities. Andrea Kelly, a resident of Tulare said that “they got all this community support to make it happen, that was beautiful to see.”
All agree that there is much work to do and many visions were revealed for what it would take to address the larger issues of racial injustice in Ivanhoe.
In a speech at the end of the event, Tulare County Supervisor Valero said,“This is a testing time, testing every person, of every color, in every community. Testing us with the hard reality of injustice and inequality that continues to stuatuate every day. But I am thankful for, and I am hopeful that many of us become the bridge that others are turning away from.” Supervisor Valero concluded his speech with a commitment and encouraged others “to support diversity in Tulare County, equity in the state of California, and love across this great nation.”
During Alyssa Barba’s speech she commented, “I am so proud of the youth because I was too scared to do what you were doing right now. I ran, I live in LA right now and the moment I felt any type of racism I left. I’m so proud of you guys for sticking here and fighting this fight because that’s what needs to happen. I had no idea there was a community like this in Ivanhoe, I am so proud to be from Ivanhoe, I’m so proud that this is happening right now.”
Another Ivanhoe recommended using this moment as a way to learn more about racism in the area and in school, saying, “I know the people in the rural areas experience a lot of racism and we can’t accept it anymore.”
Ivanhoe residents seemed to want the Tulare County Sheriffs to value the dignity of community members. One parent said that they wish the Sheriffs, “get to know the kids as human beings not just like “I might have to arrest you some day.’”
Others offered a vision that does not depend as much on the Sheriff Department for safety. A long-time Ivanhoe resident commented “back in the day we essentially were neighborhood watch and took care of our neighbors.”
Jennifer Williams commented it was important for youth to stay involved. Williams remarked, “I think it would be really important for the kids to learn more about how they can get their voice heard and how to get things done.” To this end Maribel Marquez said it was important to register to vote and vote during these important times. She stated, “You have to hold the people that have power accountable, if they don’t do their job then vote them out, especially in local elections.”
Ultimately, despite some small and large disagreements this protest has created in the community, all can agree as Orasio Soto stated, “ The only way we get this town better is if we keep trying to pursue something better.”
To engage with these public agencies discussed in this story, please contact:
- Tulare County Sheriff’s Department- (559) 802-9400
- Tulare County Supervisors- (559)636-5000
- Tulare County District Attorney’s Office – (559) 636-5494