Local activist Thairie Ritchie speaks at Sunday's meeting.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

A community reflects beyond the BLM mural vandalism: ‘We need radical systemic change’

Santa Cruz city leaders, including city council members and the chief of police, hosted a crime briefing that became more of a town hall-style discussion about racism in the county and what can be done to combat it.

The act of vandalism that desecrated the Black Lives Matter mural downtown, and the subsequent arrest of two local young men, led to an emotional Sunday morning community town hall-style discussion that explored whether this was just the most in-your-face version of racism that exists in Santa Cruz County rather than an isolated incident.

Early Saturday morning the Santa Cruz Police Department received a report of vandalism to the “Black Lives Matter” mural...

It’s “heartbreaking and violating,” Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers said of the act that led to the arrest of 20-year-old Brandon Bochat of Santa Cruz and 19-year-old Hagan Warner of Boulder Creek on charges of felony vandalism and conspiracy to commit a felony. Both were released on bail.

“I can assure you that all of my city council colleagues will work closely with our community to repair this damage as soon as possible,” Meyers added, “and, more importantly, to combat the roots of why such an act was committed.”

Local activist Joy Flynn.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Police Chief Andy Mills said the department received over a dozen calls with tips about the suspects and the vandalism, and are collaborating with the District Attorney’s office and detectives in the ongoing investigation.

“This really struck a chord with many of our community members — the Black community, the community at large, and the people of color in our community felt this was a personal attack,” he says. “Of the 5,000-plus street segments in our city, that was the only one [vandalized]? We can see what took place here — this was an intentional act of vandalism on something our community holds dear.”

The event began with over 50 community members — including four city council members, educators, and community activists — and grew over the course of the next 80 minutes. While the impetus of the event was the mural — a public art installation funded and created by community members — discussions led to questions and concerns over the blatant and subtle instances of white supremacy throughout the county, and how those mindsets must be combatted to move forward.

Abi Mustapha speaks Sunday.
Abi Mustapha speaks Sunday.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Abi Mustapha, a Santa Cruz-based artist who helped create the mural last summer, expressed frustration and disappointment. Even as the two suspects recorded the vandalism and posted the act on their social media channels, there was still the question as to whether they would be punished.

“They can act with impunity because they know they can be fine,” she says. “And they are fine. They came to jail, somebody paid their bail, they got out — and we still have to live with the fact that they live in our community every day doing sh-t like this.”

Thomas Sage Pedersen, local activist and founder and host of the Speak For Change podcast, reiterated those points, and addressed the need for starting the necessary changes sooner rather than later.

Thomas Sage Pederson speaks Sunday morning.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)

He pointed to “radical systemic change, and how we view what racism is,” he says. “A lot of people think, if you’re not walking down the street with Ku Klux Klan hoods or something, you’re not racist. I think we really need to redefine and really look at what racism is — that’s the main deal.”

One attendee, who asked to remain anonymous, wasn’t surprised by the vandalism or the suspects — she had seen their truck over the last year throughout the county, with a Trump flag and an American flag roaring through the area.

“I’m hoping that we can take this seriously and the council can actually move forward in systematically addressing the way that white children are being indoctrinated and radicalized into being white supremacists,” she says. “At some point, as a community, we have to step in and address what is going on here and call it out for what it is.”

Luna HighJohn-Bey Founder of Santa Cruz Equity Project.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner mentioned at the top of the meeting, the city does not dictate school policies or curriculum requirements within the county education system. Yet, those learning experiences don’t need to happen just in the classroom — they should be happening in the community and at home.

“It’s the home life, it’s the culture too,” Pedersen says.

One event attendee expressed concerns that the two suspects would be harassed incessantly on social media due to the open dialogue — but Mustapha shut those concerns down immediately.

“The idea that these kids are scared for one second — let them live with that for 10 days,” she says. “That is the tip of the iceberg of what Black people feel every day, knowing that bigots like this exist every day in our community…they can live with their emotions a little bit longer, like we have historically had to.”

Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For community members who may downplay the events or say that these were just “kids fooling around,” Mills drove the point home: “Shame on you.”

“This was meaningful to this community — and we will do everything within our power to make sure that those who did this are brought to justice,” he says.

The two suspects will appear in court next week for arraignment. The SCPD is still working to collect information and data to bring forward hate crime charges with the District Attorney’s office, should enough evidence warrant that charge.