As the sun set on Mission Street, well over one hundred protestors spanning multiple generations, ethnicities, and creeds converged on South Pasadena City Hall in a massive demonstration as an act of solidarity and demand for police reform on Wednesday, June 10.
The peaceful amassing of South Pasadenans, beginning at 6:00 p.m. and peaking at approximately 7:00 p.m., was an organized display of support unforeseen by the city in decades, or perhaps, ever.
Scheduled to eventually coincide with the City Council meeting occurring both inside council chambers and virtually, a clear strategy of calling for the reallocation of the City’s budget spent on the police department was at the top of the agenda for what was dubbed a “council meeting in the streets”.
Organized by the recently formed group, “South Pasadena Youth for Police Reform”, the demonstration’s goal was to present highlights in its list of demands or proposals — 21 drafted in total thus far — in amending what is considered an antiquated and defunct system in need of restructuring that has been embedded in local law enforcement.
Some supporters came from as far as Las Vegas, as was the case with former resident Casey Rusch, making the drive from out-of-state, deeming the trip as necessary in order to be a part of a potentially revolutionary moment in his hometown.
Among the blaring horns and chants, a mobile P.A. system pumped classic songs like Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ and Tupac Shakur’s “Changes” along with speeches given from past Civil Rights leaders like Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Becoming a confluence of multiple voices, some of those in attendance spoke as their messages were delivered down the corridor of Mission Street. One of which was J.T. Chesnut, a 31 year old who recalled the first time he “felt the fire within” as he marched at the age of 19 in the wake of Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 and ensuing denial of gay marriage through the passing of the now extinct Proposition 8.
Stressing that change is possible, Chestnut reminded protestors that other oppressed groups have always and continue to lend their support as they empathize in the struggle for equality. “As a gay black man, I want to let you all know that this too shall pass. I adore the enthusiasm, and I adore the power of the youth right now, and I want to thank y’all for coming out here.”
“You should all keep having this fire within, because right now you are hurt. We are angry, we are sad, we’re confused, and we want to know what is going on. I challenge you, as you educate everyone: show empathy. Do not diss, do not get angry, do not shame, because in order for us to understand each other we have to listen to each other.”
Joining in the cause, residents Troy and Erin, an interracial couple, came out to the demonstration citing that they were motivated by “making sure that we’re vocal and seen in the community as a voice and a movement of change.”
Swept up in the aura of positively channeled energy, Troy viewed protesting in front of City Hall as sending “a message of hope and consciousness that we’re not just people that are gonna sit for injustice or stand for the status quo.”
“We want to work with police, we want to work with higher levels of administration,” continued Troy, while also heeding “but at the same time we absolutely demand respect and peace on both sides of the table. We are not going to stand for, frankly, murder in broad daylight on the street.”
Witnessing younger generations and families organizing under one banner, the couple was reassured by the monumental unification in a small town, as Troy concluded, “ I think that its fantastic that our young folks have been educated by their parents and elders, to not be complacent with their surroundings and what’s happening in their macro and micro environments. It shows their passion and compassion, and shows that they are going in the right direction for the future to come,” ultimately finding optimism in what could be a promising future in South Pasadena, a town that has had a spotty past in regards to racial segregation and discrimination.
Another protestor, Andrew Newton, held a sign reminding others not to forget the fate of Vanessa Marquez, the woman who was gunned down by police during a wellness check in August 2018. He shared that he too had encounters with law enforcement during wellness checks and in one instance had “requested to interact with other first responders, who were also on site,” saying that, “Instead, officers insisted that was not a possibility, then chased (me) through my house and tackled me on my niece’s bed.”
Newton’s public comment to council, submitted that very evening, also stated that, “thankfully things did not turn out for me the way they did for Vanessa Marquez. I can get over what happened and I hold no grudge, but Vanessa deserved better. Our neighbors deserve better.”
As people poured out into the middle of the street, officers blockaded Mission Street from Fair Oaks Avenue to Fremont Avenue, with one officer on duty giving approval for the demonstration and wanting to divert traffic away from the crowd for the safety of both drivers and demonstrators.
London Lang, an SPHS Alumnus and one of the organizers associated with SP Youth, gave a heartfelt impromptu speech while the crowd gathered at full strength. His own path was paved by a transformative story of discrimination and redemption, happening less than a month ago during the initial eruptions of protests in Los Angeles.
“We are here to end racism, we are here to end the police brutality, we are here to hear everyone in the community as one,” said Lang, gaining more assertion and confidence with each word, “For the past few days we’ve had protests on Fair Oaks and Mission, I thank everyone who has been out there standing with me.”
Confessing with a genuine chuckle mid-speech that he’s “never given inspirational speeches before”, a demure Lang, joined by his sister — who herself had recently recovered from an act of police brutality in the Fairfax district two weekends ago — expressed his gratitude for the support received from the community, while insisting on the prevailing nature of love over negative emotions.
“Every day has been hot, it’s been another person flipping us off, another person trying to end this. I’m proud of you guys for staying strong throughout all the hate,” continued Lang, “Some people (on social media) hate me, they call me the n-word, and I always say I love you in the end. I’m here to tell you guys, love will always kill the hate.”
Looking out upon a sea of emphatic phrases on signs, London told a now captivated crowd, “Please don’t be scared to show who you are, you guys made those signs to show what changes you want in the city and we’re going to fight for everyone, fight for the homeless, for every gay, for every straight, we’re going to do it every month that we need to so that this city can be as good as it needs to be and encourage other cities to be as great as it is!”
Working with Lang as a founding organizer, Brandon Yung, an SPHS graduate now attending UC Berkeley, shared his thoughts with the South Pasadenan News on how the group aims to advance the momentum built in the last 2-3 weeks.
Working in tandem with London’s sincerely emotional rhetoric, the impassioned and pragmatic Yung brings focus to the feelings, addressing policy changes and governmental restructuring.
Earlier in the evening as he spoke to a crowd that flooded the street in front of City Hall, he dubbed the call to action, “A deep, deep reckoning with a broken system of policing in the U.S.”.
Recognizing that racial profiling is still commonplace in South Pasadena, Yung notes that some members of SP Youth have shared stories “talking about hanging out in the Monterey Hills and having the police called on them” by residents of a predominantly non-POC neighborhood. And while he does say that the law enforcement in South Pasadena cannot be compared to departments like LAPD, the city does have a “deep-set, implicit culture of default suspicion of non-white and non-asian people.”
Giving a concrete example of what the group considers an oppressive law (being one of the bulletpoints in their list of essential amendments), Yung cites the City’s implementation of the 10:00 p.m. curfew for minors as nothing more than “a ‘stop and frisk’ policy for anyone who is under the age of 18 who is not white and does not have a car.”
Yung and his colleagues take this an example of the kind of inefficacy certain services the police provides, while criticizing the City’s estimated budget of $10 million dollars allocated for the department.
When it comes to creating a dialogue with administration, however, the stance is adamant, “We would rather have officials reach out to us, because frankly it would be in the best interest of government to actively seek out and listen to the viewpoints of its electorate,” says Yung as he also lambasts local government for considering “citizens acting out of line when they request basic information.” A feeling that is shared by the group as they await a response in regards to a California Public Information request — in line with state enacted senate bill 1421, approved in 2018 — which was filed the week prior, in which they asked for instances of police misconduct, civilian complaints against police officers, and the release of the current contract between the Police Union and the City of South Pasadena.
In addition to the previous reason, the group also wants communications to be on the public record. Yung states that “It has been a little bit of the status quo for local government to conduct business in closed door meetings, being at times in violation of the Brown Act” which he says is sometimes to be expected in a small-town environment, “some councilmembers have a very small constituency, but we have a mature enough media landscape that that should not be acceptable anymore. After November we hope that things will improve.”
Though some may take the list of demands as lengthy, Yung insists that the problems are entirely solvable by a government of this magnitude, “The hurdles aren’t even necessarily an entrenched conservative or white supremacist agenda, it’s simply that we have an incapable governmental infrastructure.”
In the past week the City has been under intense scrutiny for a massive oversight in the budget, brought to light by comprehensive reports by Josh Betta, Sheila Rossi, and Steven Rossi. And as the demands for reallocation of police funding ramp up, Yung sees the discrepancies with the budget shortfall as just another reason to institute change, responding by saying that the city’s perceived lack of transparency and mismanagement are “emblematic of the deep-set problems that are going to be hard to overcome, not even because we have a city administration that is resistant to change, but just because we have such crippling (managerial) problems.”
One of the central strategies in achieving this change is the request that City Council commits to amending the charter for the Public Safety Commission to include police oversight, adding that the city manager’s screening for the commission requires amending as well. “The commission should serve as an independent body with access to all the information requested,” says Yung, explaining that when and if there is an instance of police misconduct happening they can “reach an informed decision as to whether or not an officer should be fired.”
Aware of the potential loss of interest by the general populace, Yung is confident that through proper channels, the momentum can continue.
As protestors began clearing out and night settled in, Yung parted with a message to City Council, the police, and the entire community, “It’s not enough to say that we should demand police reform, we are obliged to demand police reform. Every election cycle that we don’t, we are complicit in some way or another and potentially leading to another George Floyd. It can happen here, it can happen anywhere; just because it happened in Minnesota it shouldn’t feel like a foreign problem, this is a problem in our own backyard. Let’s put words to action and actually commit to policy that realizes the promise of a progressive South Pasadena.”
You can follow South Pasadena Youth for Police Reform at @spyouth4policereform on instagram
I applaud this constructive engagement to pave a road to greater justice in the future.