‘Like What Do I Have to Lose?’ Meet North County’s Newest Organizers - Voice of San Diego

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‘Like What Do I Have to Lose?’ Meet North County’s Newest Organizers

Many of the young people who organized police brutality protests in North County over the last several weeks said they were motivated not just by the injustice of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis but by their communities’ long histories of silence on racial justice issues.

Grace Lashley gathered with other teens and community members at a protest in front of Escondido City Hall. / Photo by Kayla Jimenez

At a June 3 protest in Escondido following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the protesters’ sentiments mirrored those of protests happening all over the country: that police are too eager to use deadly force against black Americans. Or, put another way: Black lives matter.

But there was also an underlying sentiment I heard from virtually everyone at the protest that was unique to Escondido: I can’t believe this is happening here.

That so many of the protests that sprung up across some of the more conservative pockets of North County over the last month felt different from how civic affairs typically play out in those spaces might be explained by who was behind those protests. Most were organized by young people who were participating in politics and protest for the first time – and their tactics looked different from how traditional activist efforts have often played out.

Many of them said they were motivated to begin organizing not just by the injustice of Floyd’s death but by their communities’ long histories of silence on racial justice issues.

Christen Mcnillion said she felt uncomfortable about the silence in her community in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, so she connected with other teens in Poway on Instagram about forming a protest. The information spread like wildfire and before she knew it, there was a full-blown protest happening in her neighborhood.

“In my book we can’t sit back and sit silent. We can’t let fear stop us. It’s time to say their names, chant, clap and say their names for what so many people want and deserve. … It’s plaguing America – silence,” Mcnillion, 17, said. “As long as there are black men and women simply due to the color of their skin are being killed … I cannot sit here silent while there’s bloodshed. I can’t sit here silent with everything going on.”

Nearly 300 people attended the peaceful afternoon protest in Poway on June 3, Mcnillion said. She said she and the group crossed a street in Poway every eight minutes and 46 seconds to represent the amount of time a white police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. Many of the teens there also gathered to discuss racial injustice, police brutality and ways to get involved in local government, and expressed concerns about the quality and accuracy of school curriculum surrounding black history.

In Escondido, Grace Lashley woke up on June 5 to protest at Escondido City Hall. Prior to the event, Lashley, 17, said she posted an Instagram story that said, “Hey, would anyone come if I started a protest?” and got overwhelming response from even people she did not even know, asking what they could do to help. She said she chose the location, date and time and later formed an Instagram message group with about 30 people to hash out the details.

On June 5, she joined her friends and other young people at the California Center for the Arts before marching to Escondido City Hall. She said the gathering started with a small group but snowballed as it went on and later formed into a crowd of community members in Escondido kneeling in honor of Floyd. At one point, the group sang “Amazing Grace” at an intersection near City Hall while Escondido police officers stood nearby.

Lashley too said she was motivated to mobilize people because doing so doesn’t seem to be the norm in Escondido.

“I’m tired of no one standing up for what they believe in. There are who people who believe in Black Lives Matter and there are people who are against police brutality,” Lashley said. “And there are people who want change in Escondido and in America. But there’s so many people that are too scared to start it or just don’t feel comfortable starting it. And I thought, ‘I guess I’d start it.’ Like what do I have to lose?”

She said she noticed people who are “loving and quiet” in the community tend to keep their views to themselves, while people with hateful views proclaim them loudly.

“We’re now finally having a voice,” she said.

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Many of the young people who helped organize local protests are still attending high schools in North County – and education loomed large in their minds.

Lashley, who attends Orange Glen High School in Escondido, said she and other youth organizers are concerned about the lack of accurate education about black history and systematic oppression in their classes, and want to hold educators accountable.

“They tell you that like Martin Luther King Jr. was all about peace, but in his days before he died, he actually said, ‘Well, I don’t know what will happen now.’ We don’t learn that. Like no one learns that in school, you learn it from the internet. … Like they tell us that slaves were brought over voluntarily. I’ve been told that in history classes before. It’s just not right.”

Mcnillion, who went to Classical Academy charter school in Escondido, said that she wishes more of her education was centered on equipping people with knowledge they can use to actually drive changes in their community. She said she’s had to educate herself and fill the gaps of what’s missing in her history and government classes about black history and local government.

Christen Mcnillion is a teen activist in Poway. / Photo by Kayla Jimenez

“There are so many things that we don’t get taught in school. And there’s so many things that we want to know. We want to find out about more protests that are safe. We want to find out who was in our offices. We want to find out about how, OK, how can I go about making a difference? How can I go about being safe when I go to these protests?” she said.

Simran Jain, like Lashley, Mcnillion and other teens in the region, say they plan to push for Poway Unified and other schools districts to require a world education course to teach students about black history and other marginalized groups.

“A lot of us graduate from [Poway Unified] schools or just anywhere and realize the things we’re taught back in the day. For example we’re taught after Christopher Columbus but not about the genocide of Native Americans,” Jain, 18, said. “They’re white-washed versions of history.”

Jain’s group Poway Black Lives Matter protested Floyd’s death and racial profiling by police officers in Poway on June 7. She said it’s especially frustrating in Poway to get people politically motivated, but the said the demonstration was peaceful and the biggest she’s seen in the town so far.

Along with demands to divert Poway city police funding toward other services, Jain said she and her group want to see more culturally sensitive curriculum in Poway Unified, more city investment in black communities and more.

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Patrick Ryan, an organizer with the group North County for Racial Justice, said he and a group of people who are primarily Latino and Afro-Latino went to a protest in La Mesa, and returned to North County thinking: “Why is North County so quiet?”

But Ryan, 24, acknowledged that while young organizers bring energy, new ideas and digital savvy, they can lack an overarching vision.

He said his group is pushing to create a collective vision for North County, which he says has a lot of energy and spirit, but a lack of direction, at protests and over social media. He said the group of 22- to 27-year-olds is working to organize and unite local activists around a cohesive agenda that includes reallocating funds from police into communities. He said the main focus of his group is to show solidarity with victims of police brutality.

“We understand it’s not going to look like Minneapolis. For example, Carlsbad and Vista are going to look different. Cities and organizers are looking at what the need politically and we’re talking and sharing educational resources and communicating about protests,” Ryan said.

He said he and his group are learning from older activists from groups like North County-based Universidad Popular and Alianza Comunitaria that the hardest part of organizing and protesting in the area is maintaining people’s energy and focus – particularly because of the differences between each city, including the way the police departments are run.

Yusef Miller, a member of the Racial Justice Coalition of San Diego and an Escondido resident, has been organizing for transparency and accountability on racial profiling in North County for years. He said he’s noticed more young people getting involved since March for Our Lives, student-led demonstrations against gun violence in schools in 2018.

He said he wants to give them credit now for what they’re doing, but believes they’d also benefit from guidance from seasoned organizers. He said young people have been reaching out to him in recent weeks for advice on how to demand change against police brutality and racial justice. He said he’s lending advice to them in a way that won’t get them hurt or killed.

“They have a lot of opportunities now that they’re not in school and especially with COVID,” he said. “I applaud the youth for getting involved. But a lot of people are getting involved not in a way they never have before. I think COVID has a lot to do with it. People don’t have the choice to turn away from George Floyd … because it’s forced into people’s reality. They couldn’t turn away and watch a baseball game or a football game or go the beach.”

He said he’s concerned that people joining the current protests might believe activism ends there.

People know George Floyd and they’re chanting, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ‘No justice, no peace,’ but they don’t understand local government,” he said. “They need to know screaming, use of violence, marching and signs are not the whole pie. We’ve been marching for years and decades and they’re new to this and some only are riled up for the popularity of it.”

Beni Martinez, a longtime activist for the Latino immigrant community in Escondido, said he’s also noticed a shift in the protests following Floyd’s death – they’ve been very organic and there hasn’t been consistent leadership organizing them.

“It’s inspiring and a little bit scary. … People are really upset. … I’ve never seen anything like this before. I was part of a lot of protests in Mexico and there’s always sort of a head, always,” Martinez said.

Mcnillion and other teens across North County are now running Instagram pages dedicated to banding together black teen activists in San Diego and across Southern California to continue to demand accountability for racial justice issues and changes in their local police departments and schools.

She said she’s pushing to stay loud and to encourage others to speak up now that protests and social media posts in support of Black Lives Matter are dying down.

She said even though the police officer who killed Floyd has been charged with second degree murder, it’s not the time for people to pack up their signs and go quiet.

“If anything it’s a time to get louder,” she said. “People really feel like ‘Hey, I don’t have to feel like I have to speak up anymore.’”

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