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Right to protest 

To Mayor Heidi Harmon, SLOPD, and all concerned

My name is Sophie Stebbins. I'm 18, and I'll be graduating from Cuesta College in the spring. I am a proud graduate of FPCS, member of the Cuesta arts community, and a worker at the Cuesta library. I live in Los Osos. I was at the protests on Sunday, May 31, and Monday, June 1, in downtown San Luis Obispo.

I want to express my gratitude for your support of the Black Lives Matter movement and for our ability to protest in solidarity with Minneapolis and so many other cities around the nation against the incessant police brutality that plagues our governmental systems at the federal level and down to the local.

However, with the utmost respect, I see so much hypocrisy here. I want to say that I'm surprised that you would show up at an obviously peaceful rally to support us and still allow cops in riot gear to be patrolling. I want to be surprised that the very next day, you allowed them to tear gas a group of young people, my peers, for kneeling peacefully in the street for the same cause. I want to be surprised that you try to quell us by saying that there was a valid reason for this, and that you are moving forward with "meaningful efforts."

Unfortunately, I am not surprised. Frankly, it's no wonder that this would happen in the city with the least diverse CSU, with a reputation for gentrification and notoriety for its locals' inability to even live and work in the city at a reasonable rate. It's no wonder that after letting homeless people sleep on the streets month after month and not investing in effective community health or shelter plans, you wouldn't show up for them now. It's no wonder that after never showing up for the black community or standing against police brutality in a significant way, you wouldn't show up for them now.

What I am is disappointed. I am a white person, and I am not claiming to speak for anyone else when I say this. But I have firsthand accounts, including my own, that show me exactly what happened during this protest, and it's all too obvious. As far as I know, we had cops from SLO, Pismo Beach, Paso Robles, maybe more. Cops in riot gear. At a peaceful protest full of predominantly young, vulnerable people. A pro-Black Lives Matter, anti-police brutality protest.

My opinion is that the police presence during the rallies and marches was not only unnecessary, but also a threat toward and an act of aggression against the citizens of SLO, our right to free speech and assembly, and our peaceful solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Almost nothing about the presence or actions committed by the police promoted the cause or promoted peace. The police did help protesters by guiding traffic both on Sunday's and Monday's marches. They did not interfere at all for the most part, but they absolutely did not actively promote peace, either. They did not prevent protesters from occupying the highway, but they used it to later blame the protesters and played this off as being dangerous and out of their control.

On Monday evening, they offered a five-minute warning for a completely unnecessary dispersion of the peaceful crowd. This kind of dispersion, in my eyes, is a violation of rights, especially when it is committed with tear gas.

This "standoff" between protesters and police happened blocks from where any possible property destruction was occurring (which was not the fault of protesters, has nothing to do with BLM, and a shattered window means nothing compared to countless brutalized lives), and the tear gas was unprovoked.

The only people who were inciting fear or violence on this day were the police. The only people who had weapons were the police. The same was true when George Floyd was murdered. It's the whole reason why we're protesting.

This act was a blatant and frankly performative show of whose side you, SLOPD, and whoever else was in charge of what occurred with the police, are on. That side is not the side that the peaceful protesters were and continue to be on. That side is the side of every other police squad in riot gear firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds and killing and arresting innocent people across the country. That side is the side of the federal government and its military, who are revealing their increasingly more malicious intent toward us each and every day that a black person is murdered, or a poor person dies, or a child is Maced, or a newscaster is silenced, or a protester is arrested. That side is the side of fascists, racists, and suppressors. It is anti free-speech. It is anti-black. It is anti-peace. It is blatantly violent and unnecessary. This action speaks volumes at this time, especially.

Do yourself a favor and apologize for this. Never let it happen again. If you're scared of people looting, actually protect businesses and the people who own them instead of punishing people who are uninvolved. Give us the means to live and organize well. Allow us to protest without being suppressed and impeded. Don't shoot your own people. Don't threaten teenagers with tear gas. Defund the police and invest in (nonviolent!) public and community health and safety programs. Invest in shelters, local businesses, rent decreases, housing opportunities, mutual aid, education. Invest in anything but the military and the destructive ideologies of the federal government—fear, conflict, and oppression. Invest in peace, unity, and joy.

Do better for everyone. Δ

Sophie Stebbins is going to graduate from Cuesta College in the spring. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or write a response for publication and email it to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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