Sunday’s Liberation Paddle-Out: ‘There are Black people in this town — and they’d like to be part of this’

The Black Surf Club Santa Cruz has grown to 90 members in less than a year.
(Courtesy Kaili Reynolds & BSCSC)

Last year’s traditional Juneteenth celebrations had to be canceled or truncated due to COVID-19, and during this year’s planning, Esabella Bonner “wasn’t sure if there would be able to be a Juneteenth.” But the organizer of the Black Surf Club Santa Cruz persevered and the pandemic has waned. Sunday’s festivities at Cowell’s should attract a crowd.

Juneteenth is paddling out early this year.

To kick off the 2021 events on the theme of liberation, the Black Surf Club Santa Cruz has partnered with the Santa Cruz Juneteenth Committee to organize the Pre-Juneteenth Paddle-Out at Cowell Beach this Sunday — one week before Juneteenth itself.

Though she’s lived here 15 years, BSCSC founder Esabella Bonner’s first time paddling out past the shorebreak was just last year, when she participated in the paddle-outs organized in support of Black Lives following the murder of George Floyd and death of Tamario Smith.

She got past her trepidation because “it was an opportunity to remind people that there are Black people in this town — and they’d like to be a part of this. Last year, there were about 20 of us that were able to [paddle out] for the first time.”

The first Black Surf Club Santa Cruz meet-up in late September last year.
(Courtesy Kaili Reynolds & BSCSC)

The realization that BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) individuals had been systematically excluded from the ocean and other spaces in nature led to the founding of Black Surf Club Santa Cruz, which provides equipment — wetsuits, boards — and lessons to BIPOC in the community.

“Things are less scary when you do them in community,” Bonner said. “I was like, ‘Let’s do it again,’ I spent the summer last year doing some organizing and trying to figure out how it was possible.”

Let’s just say she figured it out: BSCSC now has over 90 members.

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Last year’s traditional Juneteenth celebrations had to be canceled or truncated due to COVID-19, and during this year’s planning, Bonner “wasn’t sure if there would be able to be a Juneteenth.”

She had recently joined the Juneteenth organizing committee, and had the idea for BSCSC to organize a small pop-up paddle-out. “It was going to be 12 people max, and then the guidelines were lifted,” she said with relief. The theme, “Liberation” (and extended to “Liberation in the Outdoors”), was coined “to liberate BIPOC here to try this for the first time” soon after the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.

Now that restrictions on gatherings, especially outdoors, have been lifted, the timing is ripe to honor BIPOC in these spaces which, as Bonner points out, have been rendered exclusionary because of “segregation, redlining, access barriers [lack of equipment and resources], and blatant racism and ignorance.”

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The Pre-Juneteenth Paddle-Out is “open to the entire community, but BIPOC centered,” Bonner said. “Showing up and using your body to come be an ally is really important, looking out for everyone around you and making sure it’s a community-oriented event.”

For Sunday’s paddle-out and beyond, BSCSC is in need of extra equipment such as boards and wetsuits that can be loaned or donated. To ensure the event is centered on BIPOC, people can consider even lending “equipment you’d be willing to let someone use even if it meant you couldn’t go out.”

Bonner said there is also a need for more volunteers. A BSCSC tent will be set up at Cowell’s on Sunday, so attendees can get information on how to help during the day’s events. Donations and loaner equipment can also be delivered there.

Bonner herself is an example of the success and safety she has created for others through her organizing and activism. This year, she will have no hesitancy about paddling past the shorebreak.

“I’ll be out there,” she said. “I need to remember to set aside a board for myself.”

See the full list of Juneteenth events here. Further information and full schedule for Sunday’s Pre-Juneteenth Paddle-Out at Cowells can be found here.