In July, Tianna Arata helped organize an anti-racism protest in San Luis Obispo in hopes of getting the message of racial justice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd to the Central Coast community.
The rally started in a local park. But at one point more than 300 protesters blocked traffic on US-101. According to the police, at least two cars were destroyed. Arata, a 20-year-old student, was arrested.
Her arrest has since become a rallying call for members of the Black Lives Matter and other activist groups. Hundreds of people came to a press conference and rally outside the San Luis Obispo courthouse on Tuesday to show solidarity with Arata.
"Tianna's freedom is about all of our freedom," said Melina Abdullah, professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, into a microphone as supporters gathered on the sidewalk and signs read, " Free Tianna. "
Supporters of the Tianna Arata rally outside the San Luis Obispo county courthouse on Tuesday. Arata faces eight charges in connection with an anti-racism demonstration she helped organize last month.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Counter-protesters were also present at the event.
Police have argued that the charges against Arata are fair and justified.
"She was not arrested for lawfully protesting," said Deanna Cantrell, police chief of San Luis Obispo. "She was arrested for her own actions and conduct, and she is the one who broke the law."
After the rally, Derek Johnson, manager of Cantrell and San Luis Obispo City, hosted a virtual press conference to answer questions about Arata's arrest and other diversity concerns.
Arata has been detained on suspicion of eight charges: four wrongful detention offenses; a crime of conspiracy; and three offenses, according to the police, count towards resisting or obstructing a peace officer participating in a riot and an illegal gathering. She was released on zero bond later that evening.
Now she waits while the prosecution investigates her case and decides whether to proceed with the charges. Her indictment is scheduled for September 3rd.
"It's super crazy because I wouldn't get arrested at all," Arata told the Times during a Zoom call. “It was completely targeted. … And it obviously seemed like it wanted to discourage other people from organizing protests in San Luis Obispo. "
The fight against racial injustice, said Arata, has long been part of her life. A native of Portland, Ore., Who moved to San Luis Obispo at age 16, began her journey as an activist at the age of 14 after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO.
When demonstrations raged around the world by Minneapolis police after Floyd's death in May, Arata and a group of her friends quickly took to the streets of San Luis Obispo. Arata said comments by the city's sheriff, Ian Parkinson, that he "never saw any indication that systemic racism existed" in the county, have also prompted residents of San Luis Obispo, which is overwhelmingly white, to too expose that racial injustice is even in the "happiest place in America." (In 2018, a series of racist incidents in Cal Poly sparked much debate. Some black students on campus said they weren't welcome there.)
Tianna Arata, who led a rally against racial injustice, said her arrest "prevented other people from organizing protests in San Luis Obispo".
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
“A lot of people in San Luis (Obispo) like to point a finger and say, 'Oh, we don't have these problems here,' said Arata, 'but we needed people who open their eyes and say,' OK, this affects us . "This is a group of young black and brown youth, and we tell you we have problems in this church too. No community is excluded from this. "
Arata organized a protest with her friend Melissa Elizalde and other local youth activists. The demonstration started around 4 p.m. in Mitchell Park near downtown San Luis Obispo.
From Arata's point of view, the atmosphere was uplifting.
"Everyone was super positive," she said of the event. “Cars, even on the autobahn in general, honked in support. (They) have been very respectful and polite in our moments of silence.
“It was really happy. There was a lot of just dancing and positive and people just expressing how they felt, ”added Arata. She spoke to Cantrell about the event beforehand.
Tianna Arata, left, hugs girlfriend Nicole Huffman before the rally outside the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse on Tuesday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
But the police saw it differently. About an hour later, police said the protesters had gotten onto US 101, the main street in San Luis Obispo, and had begun to compromise the safety of motorists, themselves and law enforcement, by keeping traffic in both directions for almost anywhere blocked an hour.
On the highway, police said demonstrators allegedly damaged the hood and "smashed" the rear window of a car with a 4-year-old child in the back seat. Police also reported that in another incident that occurred off the highway, some protesters were seen chasing and throwing objects at a vehicle.
Video footage from a gray vehicle was posted on the Police Department's Facebook page.
Arata and others deny the police account. They say the video appears to show a protester being pulled on the hood of the vehicle for a brief period before the car drives away, with Arata and other protesters narrowly missing.
When the protest ended and Arata and some of her friends grabbed a vehicle, police officers showed up and took her into custody.
“You pushed all my friends out of the way. They weren't interested in arresting others, ”Arata said. “It was totally focused and frustrating and really daunting.
"I was like why? Why are you aiming at me What will that do? " She said.
A video of Arata's arrest was shared on social media using the hashtag #FreeTianna.
Another protester, Elias Bautista, was also arrested that evening on suspicion of "attacking two officers during the arrest," Cantrell said. Efforts have also been made to support the Bautista cause.
Cantrell said she supports "peaceful" protests and would like to continue to meet with activists to find ways to "make the police meaningful to our community".
"For Tianna and everyone else, at some point we have to sit down and talk about what it looks like if there is a goal to change the police," Cantrell told the Times over the phone.
The police chief said she was obliged to uphold the rights of all residents, including those on the highway.
Johnson, the city administrator, said he wants the public to know that the police department and local officials "support the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement."
"We want Ms Arata's voice to be heard and we want safe places for free expression. We also need to make sure people are safe and there is no property damage," he said.
Hundreds gather in support of activist Tianna Arata at the San Luis Obispo County courthouse. Police argue that the charges against Arata are fair and justified.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Statements that Arata could potentially face up to 15 years in prison if convicted were swiftly circulated on social media. But dist. Atty. Dan Dow exposed this, saying it was "obviously wrong" and that any charges she faces would result in a much lower sentence in the county jail, not jail.
Dow also said it was too early to speculate what charges might be brought before Arata's charges.
But one of Arata's attorneys, Curtis Briggs, said prosecutors are "completely dishonest about the time it is in".
"He's completely misleading the public," Briggs said of Dow. "(Tianna) would be incarcerated in a prison. … She would actually be exposed to worse conditions in a local prison, which is not intended to give someone the lifestyle of being incarcerated for several years. It is very reasonable too say she would spend four, five, six years in prison. "
During the protest, Briggs called for Cantrell to resign.
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said Arata's case poses a bigger law enforcement problem, which tries to intimate and silence protesters.
"Tianna is not an anomaly," Cullors told the Times via email. “She is part of hundreds of other people who have been criminalized … I think we should praise young leaders for making our country better and stronger. Instead, we created an environment that made Tianna something she isn't. "
For Arata, her arrest is evidence that more work needs to be done in San Luis Obispo and beyond.
"As I'm getting all of this national attention, I hope at some point I can highlight other topics and not just 'Oh, Free Tianna,'" she said. "Because the struggle to drop my charges and have them released is not just for me, but for all of the people who have been ill-treated by law enforcement in this country."