Why I protest with Black Lives Matter in San Luis Obispo

August 26, 2020

James Papp


One summer I spent ten weeks doing upscale finish carpentry for a Lake Superior cabin-garage complex we began to refer to as the Garage Mahal. Staying at the neighboring cabin was a Midwest business executive named Mather, and I asked him if he was related to Increase Mather, the Puritan clergyman and president of Harvard College. When he said he was a descendant, I pointed out that in 1692 his ancestor had interviewed my nine-times-great-aunt Abigail in her prison during the Salem Witch Trials.

As we talked more about our backgrounds, I realized that all his ancestors in the intervening three centuries had persisted as professors and bishops and other grandees, and mine had persisted as small farmers and craftsmen—until my working-class parents moved as close as they could afford to the local UC campus, and my sisters and I were able to take advantage of a public higher education that in the 1980s was still affordable and accessible.

When I think about the 300 years that it took my family to climb to the middle class, I can’t help but think of other families who were enslaved for the first 175 years and were Jim Crowed, covenanted and redlined for the next 100. Then America did a couple of decades of affirmative action to try to make up for those centuries but soon changed its mind.

All of these are reasons why I protest that Black Lives Matter, because for so many centuries in this country the official and unofficial policies have been that Black lives didn’t matter: didn’t need to be free, have voting rights, have equal schooling, ride in the front of the bus, live in the same neighborhoods, join the same clubs, or marry who they wanted. Of course all lives matter; give me a break. But if you think we live in a country where centuries of discrimination have been wished away with pixie dust, and we don’t need to work to achieve equality, and equality isn’t healthy for a society, you should look at current statistics. All men are created equal, but Black babies in America are stillborn at twice the rate of White babies, which puts a damper on creation.

I had a lot of talks about race with Archie McLaren of Wine Classic fame in the weeks before his death. Archie grew up in Memphis; his grandmother grew up with a slave sleeping at the foot of her bed. Archie’s first wife was Black, a fact that necessitated them being hustled out of Mississippi ahead of the KKK in 1969, even though it was two years after the Supreme Court had struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia. Richard Loving was a white construction worker; his wife Mildred Jeter, the daughter of a black farmer. The Lovings were charged with “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.”

With Archie I concluded that the greatest trick the White ascendancy ever pulled was convincing working-class Whites that their interests lay with plantation- and factory-owning Whites rather than with working-class Blacks: in effect dividing an economic interest group along racial lines. The Civil Rights Movement triumphed over legal discrimination during my childhood, but during my entire adult life, economic inequality has been growing and social mobility shrinking in America, across all racial lines.

The poor have gotten poorer, the rich have gotten exponentially richer, and the middle class has lost its spending power, which is a huge factor in the decline of local retail. Inequality has further exploded during COVID, as Blacks, Hispanics, service workers, and agricultural workers have been hit disproportionately in livelihoods and lives lost. Meanwhile the stock market booms.

So I’ve protested with 3,000 others in front of the County Courthouse. I’ve protested with three others on the corner of Madonna and Los Osos Valley roads. I’ve been on marches organized and peopled by a variety of groups: NAACP, Race Matters, Students for Quality Education, a local gardening club, and random kids who text others.

I hear some snark about Black Lives Matter protests. In some circles it’s probably all snark. In other circles there’s no snark. We tend to stick to our circles these days. But Karen Velie and I are in an intersection of circles, so she asked for my inside take for CalCoastNews, and I’ll call it as I see it.

Snark 1. The protesters are all White. (Not true. Young protesters’ race is all over the place: Black, White, Asian, Indigenous, and a lot of mixture. Which is maybe the point of desperately wanting equality.)

Snark 2. None of the Black protesters are from here. (Not true, and I don’t see why that should matter. You don’t leave your First Amendment rights in the U-Haul.)

Snark 3. There was never any discrimination in San Luis. (True if you listen to Whites. Not true if you listen to Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians.)

Snark 4. Some protesters have done illegal things. (If true, it doesn’t impugn other protesters or the protests. The Supreme Court’s unanimously ruled in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. that protesters, like everyone else, have responsibility only for their own actions.

Karen asked me to address her and Josh Freidman’s article “Protesters demand money from San Luis Obispo business owners.” I have to say that “name calling, another request for money and a personal visit,” though unpleasant, doesn’t sound like extortion, and a text promising someone is going to write “an official letter asking” for “donations to local and national black lives matter agencies,” if genuine, and if the letter was ever written, doesn’t sound like extortion, either. People send me official letters asking for donations all the time, and I throw them away. They come in person, and I say no. And I can’t tell you how many people call me names. But if business owners think the law has been broken, they should call the cops.

Karen and Josh have reported that some protesters called for boycotts of some merchants, particularly those who boarded up back in early June. Boarding up came across as creepy, and threatening a boycott for boarding up comes across as creepy, but they’re both perfectly legal. In NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., the Supreme Court pointed out that boycotts as an “expression on public issues” rest “on the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.” But maybe we should all move on to a more productive discussion.)

Snark 5. All protesters have done illegal things. (I confess to jaywalking with intent. The cops know where to find me.)

Snark 6. The protesters don’t have jobs. (Told me by a counter-protester who also apparently had nowhere better to be. Yes, protesters have jobs and businesses but grab an hour on evenings and weekends and other times they’re not working to say what they believe in.)

Snark 7. The protests are inconvenient. (Racism has been a 400-year-long inconvenience in America, not just for people of color but for our whole society. And our history of protest goes back to the Boston Tea Party, which was certainly inconvenient to tea drinkers. So if it takes some brief counter-inconvenience for us to end racism, that would be worth it, wouldn’t it? Let me compare the hours I’ve sat in traffic for no better reason than someone was trying to text and drive and got into a fender-bender, or to the noise I’ve had to endure from party people on the plaza.)

Snark 8. The protests are ruining business. (With a pandemic that has killed almost 200,000 people in America and no one from the White House down to SLO City Hall willing to take the steps to eradicate it, with an economic downturn like no one has seen before, and with SLO County having record heat and the worst air quality in the country, I’m not sure why the protests get the blame here. As a downtown business owner, I’m always hearing complaints as to why people “don’t come downtown anymore”—of which my favorite is “There are too many people downtown.”)

Snark 9. The cops have spent too much money policing the protests. (I think the cops have overreacted, but in a department with 559 sets of night vision goggles [for the next vampire invasion?], that doesn’t surprise me.)

Snark 10. The protests have gone on too long, and the protesters are losing our sympathy.

The protesters are not protesting for sympathy, they’re protesting for change, and nothing has actually changed except sympathy. Legislation in Congress is stalled. In the California legislature, numerous bills have been introduced but not passed. And in SLO, the City Council decided to form a committee to consider a task force to think about suggestions. That struck me as lame, but the city bureaucracy likes to make sure the council never does anything on its own unless it’s meaningless.

I remember the night the Rodney King riots started in LA. I was writing the footnotes to my dissertation as choppers hovered and smoke rose from the horizon. Sixty-three people were killed, 2,383 injured, 12,000 arrested, with $1 billion in property damage. I thought then that protesting was silly and instead set about forming committees and task forces. But 28 years later, I realize little has changed for the better and much for the worse. The only time I’ve spoken at the SLO protests, it was to apologize for waiting 28 years.

So I say, yes: let’s bring the protests to an end, but not by snarking about them or putting up BLM signs. Let’s figure out how we can bring about real change.

As a policy wonk, I look at budgets, and the budgets make me furious. Since I was in school, I’ve seen California’s higher education budget drop by half and its prison budget double. That’s an issue for every working-class person of any color, because it’s not only cheaper for the state to send our kids to college than to prison but a hell of a lot more productive for our whole society.

I’m furious that SLO proposed a regressive sales tax increase that will hit poor and unemployed people and struggling retailers the hardest.

I’m furious that when I’ve pointed out to the SLO City Council that we’re building housing only for the rich, not the poor, I’ve been told I can’t use the words “rich” and “poor,” because they’re “trigger words.”

That’s why I’m out there running for council. Because I’m an optimist. Because if this is the moment that everything can shift for the better on race and class—if we can have a more equal, more open and more productive society—I want to be there putting my whole back into it.

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10.5 million guns sold since! March 2020. That tells me that people are getting a little fed up with stuff, and they are staking steps to protect themselves.

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