This past weekend, barring any major breakdowns of organization, two Chico protests will have happened (we go to press on Fridays, so I can’t say how they actually went down) in solidarity with the protests happening around the nation following the killing of Mike Brown and the subsequent non-indictment of the police officer, Darren Wilson, who killed him.These protests are partially about police tactics, but they’re especially about what seems to many to be institutionalized racism that leads to virtual impunity when police officers hurt and kill people of color, especially black men. Think of Rodney King. Think of Eric Garner. Think of all the times there weren’t video cameras filming what happened.
The two protests were initiated by two very different people, with two very different lived experiences, who had two very different visions for how their protests would go. One is a bubbly 19-year-old white “Sellebrity” at Old Navy, who describes herself as “highly empathic” and whose only personal experience with the police is when, once, back in Jr High, a police officer drove by and shouted “wear a helmet!” when she was riding her bike. The other is a 22-year-old black man, an activist, who told me he’s been stopped and questioned thirteen times by the police in the seven years he’s lived in Chico—on his bike, on foot, driving—often for “fitting the description,” or for what seemed like nothing at all. The former has organized a permitted rally in the plaza; the latter an “impromptu” march down the Esplanade, with plans to stop traffic.
When Mandi Ranalla sat on the sofa at her parents’ house, where she lives, watching the news on TV as the events unfolded in Ferguson, she was filled with anger and emotion. “I was really upset at everything going on,” Mandi told me. “I was mad at the looting and the burning of buildings. I was upset with the verdict and how it came out. The fact that there wasn’t enough evidence to indict this cop, simply because he was a cop. And I was just so mad! And I didn’t see anything going on in Chico. And I was like ‘you know what? I’m just going to do it and see what happens.’”
So she chose a date and created the “Mike Brown Protest and Demonstration” Facebook page that very night. “When I set it up I only invited sixty of my friends and it just went insane and I was like ‘Oh! That’s so cool!’” Mandi says. Soon, the Chico Peace and Justice Center contacted her and were helping her organize it.
Mandi spent most of her childhood in Montana, but has lived in Chico for almost ten years.
“I was raised to always be a very compassionate person,” she told me. “That’s just part of who I am. And being raised by an empathetic family and being empathetic myself it’s easy for me to kinda put myself in their shoes with out actually having to be in their shoes.” Mandi also went on an organized trip her junior year of highschool called “Sojourn to the Past,” where her group travelled to the South and traced major events of the Civil Rights Movement, including meeting two of the Little Rock Nine. “It was a very, very emotional trip for everybody,” she said. “Someone was always crying.”
“To be able to do something important and beautiful is something that everyone needs to know about and to hear about because we do, as younger people, have a voice, and we can change the world and what’s around us, just by speaking up,” she adds.
Jaquan Sayres was excited when he first learned about Mandi’s event. The 22-year-old activist and “traveler” has been dealing with deep and institutional racism of the sort that the protests are directed at all of his life. Besides being stopped thirteen times, he recounted how a close friend of his was recently tackled off of his bike by the Chico Police, winding up in the hospital, in a case of mistaken identity, i.e. “fitting the description.”
“A lot of it is…you know… ‘fitting the description.’ So my question is: what is the description?” Jaquan asks.
“I’m a peaceful guy,” he continues. “I don’t go out and rob houses and shoot people—but I’m seen as someone who robs houses and shoots people.”
“We need to bring forth a lot more energy to these issues: It’s not just the black community. I’m just a black man speaking from my experience.
Though he was enthusiastic about the rally at first, Jaquan and some others began to have some reservations about decisions Mandi was making and, in some ways, about who was making them. First it was pushing the date back in order to obtain a permit. Then it was changing the name to “Rally For Justice (Equality Under the Law).” Then it was her decision to invite the Police Chief to speak. But also, Mandi and her supporters at the Chico Peace and Justice Center are white.
“She has a great idea,” Jaquan says. “I will not discredit the idea. A lot of people felt really empowered to be a part of it. The issue at hand is when you’re making decisions about a rally based off of equality and police injustice and about people of color without people of color present.”
For Jaquan and others, the choices being made reflect a very “reasonable,” “well meaning,” and “empathic” perspective, rather than a direct, lived experience with the issues at hand. Changing the name from “Mike Brown Protest and Demonstration” to “Rally for Justice (Equality Under the Law)” universalized the issue and felt like an effort to make it “palatable.” Inviting the police chief to speak gave a platform to the already powerful instead of the marginalized people feeling affected. (Mandi, facing heavy backlash, has since revoked that invitation.)
And then there’s the very form of the protest. “An issue I have with this protest right now,” Jaquan says, “is there’s this peaceful protest permit. I’m asking myself ‘What is a peaceful protest permit?’ People in Oakland right now who are shutting down the Bart station: do they have a permit? Susan B Anthony and the people who marched for women’s rights: Did they go get a permit? And those who marched on Montgomery: Did they? We need to stop being afraid of our government. We need to stop asking for permission to do things that are within our constitutional rights to do. It’s in our constitutional right to assemble. What is a free speech zone? A free speech zone is a restriction zone that says ‘hey, we don’t want to hear what you have to say and so you need to just speak right here.’”
“What are we afraid of? I’m not afraid of police action. Let’s shut down the Esplanade. Let’s create a march. Make an impact. The plaza is not useful. It doesn’t get a lot of eye traffic. I’ve been in the plaza. I’ve gone right past the plaza. I’ve seen protests happen on the corner streets right near the plaza. That’s cool. That’s great. If I saw that I’d think they’re doing a good job. But I wouldn’t say ‘this is stopping my day.’ ‘This is making me think about this issue.’ It’s not going to get fixed that way. It’s going to get fixed when you stop people in their tracks.”
In many ways, of course, this is an age old debate about tactics among those on the left. Many people instinctively feel that any sign of “unrest” is counter productive; that it confirms the worst stereotypes people have about the groups protesting. These are sensible and natural reactions. But would we even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for “unrest?” If people had peacefully gathered in the Ferguson plaza? Would the nation have noticed? Would they have cared?
These suggestions were brought to Mandi (by someone other than Jaquan, originally), but Mandi held her ground, saying (in a correspondence that Jaquan provided me) “that it would be very rude to disregard other’s events in the city planning.”
“She’s got the ultimate power,” Jaquan said. “And it’s like ‘We are going to show them how to do it correctly.’”
And so Jaquan (along with his friend Theodore Ulsh), started the “March For Mike Brown” event page, an “impromptu” march down Esplanade that may or may not have, at this point (remember the Synthesis goes to press on Friday), have wound up in some arrests.
What happens when an ally winds up in charge and sometimes doesn’t agree with the people she’s trying to help support and represent?
I mention to Mandi that it seems like the protest has split into two separate events; one organized and led by people of color and one that is led by white people.
“Sadly, that is what is happening,” Mandi said. “I’ve had a few people say ‘I can’t attend this.’ They’re saying they won’t attend if we’re not listening to the input of people of color. But I have had communication with [a lot of people of color]. And they have a lot of influence over me and over what I ultimately decide, and what I bring to the people I’m working with. So, in a sense, they kinda are the leaders because they are the people that I want to listen to and they are the people who really matter. So, as much as the decisions are ultimately mine to make, I really am listening to the people who really are, behind the curtain, in charge. I’m the face, but…ultimately, they’re the ones who are in charge because they’re the ones that I’m listening to.”
“This is hard, isn’t it?” I asked Mandi.
“Yeah,” she said (and you could see it on her face). “It’s very interesting to be walking this fine line. Sometimes I don’t like the feeling of getting tons and tons of negative feedback from people. But then….I understand why. After I take a step back. Being pulled over by cops and being in this institutionalized racist world—it’s a part of my privilege that I don’t have to experience that. And if I did have to experience that I don’t know what I would do. And that frustration is absolutely warranted. There’s nothing that I can say. I’ve never been in that situation. Personally, I don’t want to ever be in that situation.”
Ultimately, (at press time), this is a story of finding ways to come together, not just of the ways we are pulled apart. Both Mandi and Jaquan are attending and fully supporting each other’s events. Mandi speaks of her “wild” support for the march. They did a radio interview on KZFR together. The march (if it isn’t disbanded by the police) will end at the rally. They’ll be coming from different places—different directions—but they’ll be struggling for the same things, together.
What Mandi and Jaquan are doing is difficult—it brings up all kinds of uncomfortable issues—and it takes courage. It’d be easier to just not deal.
“As far as I’ve seen,” Theodore Ulsh—Jaquan’s “March for Mike Brown” co-planner—said, “Chico has an inability—as a whole—to think critically about these issues. About any issue. And they tend to only scratch it on the surface level because that’s what people are comfortable with.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked.
“Because people don’t want to get uncomfortable. And they don’t want to delve into issues that don’t have to deal with them.”