As Santa Cruz celebrates Juneteenth, activist Thairie Ritchie says city’s racial reckoning hasn’t gone far enough
In the three years since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, conversations reflecting the racial reckoning going on across the country began to take place locally in Santa Cruz, activist Thairie Ritchie says, but the movement gradually flickered out. Ritchie is organizing a Juneteenth event, March Towards Love & Courage, starting at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the downtown London Nelson Community Center, where he hopes attendees achieve some of this reflection on the movement.
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When George Floyd was murdered in 2020, community activist Thairie Ritchie helped lead the local protest movement for racial justice in Santa Cruz.
Three years later, speaking on the eve of Juneteenth, a federal holiday marking the end of slavery after the Civil War, Ritchie, 27, says he doesn’t feel there has been much significant change in the racial atmosphere in Santa Cruz.
The community held a handful of marches and vigils that year after the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Some conversations reflecting the racial reckoning going on across the country began to take place locally, Ritchie says, but the movement gradually flickered out for the majority of the public.
“Since the reopening of the community [from COVID restrictions], I’ve felt that a lot of the conversations that sparked because of Black Lives Matter on police reform and reimagining what public safety looks like for community members have been left on the table,” Ritchie told Lookout.
Ritchie is organizing a Juneteenth march, March Towards Love & Courage, starting Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the London Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz, where he hopes attendees achieve some of this reflection on the movement.
While many community members see the Black Lives Matter movement in a positive light, Ritchie says there are some who remain skeptical. He recounts recent experiences of feeling watched or profiled when entering a business, a feeling he says is known all too well by the Black community, not just in Santa Cruz, but around the country.
“Just recently I was at a store and while I was shopping, the business owner was watching my every move as I was walking around the store and being indecisive,” he said. “My brother, being protective of me, just told me to hurry up and buy something.”
Ritchie also points to the vandalization of the Black Lives Matter mural in front of Santa Cruz City Hall in July 2021 as another example of resistance to the movement.
The mural project’s organizers are expecting both of the vandals, Brandon Bochat and Hagan Warner, to apologize and participate in a repainting of the mural Saturday. Ritchie says such efforts toward restorative justice put activists in a unique position to be able to understand where some of the resistance to the Black Lives Matter movement within the community might originate from.
“The two individuals that were involved were relatively young,” Ritchie said of Bochat and Warner, who were 20 and 19, respectively, at the time of the vandalism. “So as activists and organizers, the restorative justice approach is trying to get a deeper understanding of who were these two individuals influenced by? Is this a reflection of our community? Are there pockets of our community that have a resistance to Black Lives Matter in such a visceral way that they would psychologically and emotionally damage the Black community and the movement in such a way that causes divisiveness in the community?”
Ritchie says that while activists are working to dismantle intolerance in the community, it’s a slow process. For those who do want to work toward social change, expect to put in more work than just a sign or a hashtag.
The first step, Ritchie says, is accepting that the education behind what Black Lives Matter truly means is going to be uncomfortable and that is OK. Ritchie also noted the importance of being educated by Black voices and using that knowledge to educate those outside of the movement.
Juneteenth became a federal holiday only in 2021, so Ritchie recommends first and foremost to recognize the work of the activists who rallied to raise awareness of Juneteenth in 2020 and 2021.
“Instead of using this holiday as just a free day off, it’s more important to view this holiday as a message of raising social and systemic awareness and education,” Ritchie said, “and also what we need to do moving forward as a Black community and as a movement.”
Ritchie understands the sense of exhaustion that comes with continuously working for change for such a long period of time. One of his goals with the March Towards Love & Courage is to uplift those organizations and community members who have been working to create positive change with a greater goal in mind.
Ritchie recently became an uncle, which gave him an even greater sense of responsibility for the future of the movement.
“I don’t want my 1-year-old nephew to still make MLK quotes by the time he’s the same age as me and have people still see it as relevant,” he said. “I want him to be able to see an MLK quote and realize how far we as Black people have come and how far the movement has come.”