Over the past two weeks, protests against systemic racism and police brutality have taken place around the world, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an African American man who died in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers on May 25.
From London to Long Beach and across Orange County, amid a coronavirus pandemic, people have crowded streets demanding change, calling for justice and erupting in chants of “Black lives matter” in honor of Floyd and other Black men and women killed by law enforcement.
Some marches were marred by violence, but most have been peaceful.
Here in Seal Beach, a homegrown daily demonstration has quietly emerged. Since last Friday, residents have been gathering at noon every day near the Red Car Museum in Old Town for a peaceful protest.
Dozens of participants kneel in silence, some holding a fist in the air, in honor of lives lost. Signs that read “Black Lives Matter” or “Racism is Evil” are held for people passing by to see. Social distancing is encouraged and face coverings are common. Children are welcomed and sharing stories is supported.
Mariesa Hayes, a Seal Beach resident and owner of the new age gift shop Ebb Persephone on Main Street, is the organizer.
Last Thursday, she posted on social media inviting people to join her the next day to kneel in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
That’s how long prosecutors say officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck after the 46-year-old was arrested for allegedly trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin and the other officers were fired and all are facing charges.
Hayes said video showing Floyd’s final moments, handcuffed and pinned to the ground saying he couldn’t breathe “opened a wound for everyone.”
“I’ve been really, really struggling,” she said before the protest on Friday. “My heart is broken.”
She’s taking action because she said she wants everyone’s heart to be healed.
Hayes admitted she was afraid to speak out. “I’m scared of people being racist toward me,” she said. Hayes is biracial with an African American father and Filipino mother.
It was her 14-year-old daughter that gave her the courage to act. “I see my daughter, how she’s treated differently,” Hayes said. “I’m standing up for her.”
“These kids are our voice,” Hayes said, encouraging children to attend the protest. “We want them to live in a better world.”
On Friday, the first day of the protest, around 75 people showed up, including twenty children. Between 20 to 40 people attended on other days.
Hayes acts as a calm moderator. She invites people to reflect during the nearly nine minutes of silence and then encourages everyone to feel empowered to use their voice to share their experiences.
At Sunday’s protest, a man in his late 30s spoke emotionally about coming to terms with silently witnessing racism at his workplace.
“I saw the real issue was me not opening my mouth,” he said and added, “I’m complicit because I didn’t say anything.” He vowed that would happen no more.
A 12-year-old spoke about intolerance he sees at his middle school.
An older white man was moved to tears recounting the heartbreak of hearing his grandfather use racist language at an L.A. Dodgers game decades ago.
“It’s OK,” Hayes responded. “Coming on this Earth is a learning experience. We’re born to love, not hate.”
“Hopefully things will change”
Rebecca Jurado said she’s lived in town for 30 years and was pleasantly surprised by the turnout on Friday. “Hopefully things will change and leaders will listen. But it has to come from us,” she said.
“I love Seal Beach and feel safe here and am happy that we can do this,” Sadie Laliberte said of the protest on Friday. She lives in town and owns a local skin care salon.
“We in America need to realize Black lives matter,” Seal Beach resident Kent Maul said. He and his 27-year-old daughter were at Friday’s protest.
Both expressed a desire for local community groups and elected leaders to participate. Maul, a member of the Seal Beach Lions Club, hoped the group would support the effort. “It should be everybody against racism,” he said.
On Saturday, someone in a car driving by the protest yelled, “all lives matter,” according to Hayes. The phrase has also appeared on social media posts in response to the protest.
“Yes, all lives SHOULD matter but we are focused on BLACK LIVES MATTERING because they haven’t mattered,” Hayes wrote in an email message using capital letters. “We need help because black lives have been in danger for 401 years in America and still now.”
On Tuesday, demonstrators arrived to find a sign reading “Police Lives Matter” on the grass where the protest has been taking place. Cheryl Suddarth told a Sun editor that it was her sign and that a protestor had taken it down saying he didn’t want it. Demonstrator Steve Miller said he had asked her to move the sign to the front of her house, which is apparently across the street from the Red Car Museum.
“The Seal Beach Police Department respects the community’s right to peacefully assemble,” Sergeant Nick Nicholas wrote in an email and called the protests near the Red Car Museum “very peaceful.”
Seal Beach Police Chief Philip Gonshak reacted to Floyd’s killing in a statement that read, in part: “What happened with Mr. George Floyd tears away at the moral fabric of what law enforcement professionals stand for.” (Full statement on page 4).
The statement was part of a press release issued Friday that outlined the department’s use-of-force policies.
Hayes plans to hold the daily protest indefinitely. She hopes it will motivate community members to educate themselves and have conversations with loved ones about racism.
“It will likely be an uncomfortable discussion, but it is critical it is addressed,” she wrote.