“No justice, no peace!” hundreds of students chanted as they walked shoulder-to-shoulder down Higuera Street. Cardboard signs with names, “George Floyd,” “Breonna Taylor” and “ Trayvon Martin” written in all-caps, raised over the heads of hundreds of masked walkers. A glance downtown and you’d see a group of activists marching for change in their small town of San Luis Obispo as well as being a part of a movement that was gaining traction nationwide.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
The next day, protests ignited across the world calling for recognition that Black Lives Matter.
Between the day of Floyd’s death and Aug. 22, 10,600 demonstration events were reported across the country with protestors organizing around Floyd and other victims of racism and police brutality.
In San Luis Obispo, local activists Tianna Arata, Jaden Hamler and Xavier Moore, led hundreds of students and community members in multiple demonstrations calling for justice.
But how did graphic communication junior Mia Lew show her support? By making earrings.
Lew, who is immunocompromised, was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis and injects herself with medication that suppresses her immune system.
In the middle of a pandemic, those who are immunocompromised like Lew are at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19, and cannot risk attending protests amongst thousands of people. Lew’s physical health isn’t strong enough to attend local protests in San Luis Obispo.
“I’d love to go to every single protest,” Lew said. “But personally, I am scared.”
Still wanting to be involved fighting social justice and reform, Lew found an alternate way. Through her jewelry business Mia Makes Ice she could support local Black Lives Matter movements in San Luis Obispo. With each jewelry purchase, 20% of those proceeds go to different GoFundMe’s and Black Lives Matter organizations.
However, Lew knew she could still be doing more.
Over the summer, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests in SLO, Lew remembered how much more money she made in-person and realized a difference could be made.
“Tianna and Black Lives Matter — it’s national news in our community,” Lew said. “To see it all come out right here made me feel I should do something.”
The answer? A mask-required, social distancing craft sale.
Prior to the pandemic, Lew had participated in a craft fair and found she made more sales in one weekend than she usually does in a month on her website.
“SLO is very community oriented,” Lew said. “And we know a lot of people to help donate to a cause and they can do it through buying local, student-run, handmade items.”
The craft fair was an instant hit. The vendors — who all agreed to donate 25% of their proceeds— were able to raise approximately $2,000 that was split up and donated to the Free Tiana Coalition, Elias Bautista and R.A.C.E. Matters SLO.
“We wanted to support some of the BLM movements, the local movements,” senior Mari DeBarros said who participated in the craft sale. “We decided on R. A. C. E. Matters because they do some really cool activist work and then another group came up — AACCS [Abolitionist Action Central Coast SLO].”
Because not everyone has a flourishing jewelry business like Lew, other immunocompromised students found other forms of activism to channel their allyship and support.
Communications sophomore M. K. Kaplan, who is also immunocompromised, decided to get involved with the Abolitionist Action Central Coast SLO (AACCS). They began working with the group through people they knew from Cal Poly, specifically the Students for Quality Education (SQE).
“Not being able to go anywhere over this past summer, I really threw all of my time into activism,” Kaplan said.
Activism is not new to Kaplan, who grew up on the east coast, right outside the nation’s capital.
“The proximity to Washington, D.C. is what allowed me to get really politically involved, even as I was younger,” Kaplan said. “I could just take the metro to the Women’s March in 2016.”
Because Kaplan is immunocompromised and stayed home for the summer, they did not attend walk the streets of San Luis Obispo with protestors. However, they found they could make meaningful change on the back-end.
“I think that’s sort of something that goes overlooked in activism work is that the majority of it happens behind the scenes,” Kaplan said.
As an officer of AACS, Kaplan attended numerous online meetings daily, to help organize events and research policy to make demands of San Luis Obispo County.
“I wasn’t involved equally in every part, but I had a lot of fingers in a lot of pies,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan, who started working for AACS prior to the Black Lives Matter protests in SLO, got to help plan the protests that began over the summer.
“So much goes into planning a protest,” Kaplan said. “Sometimes you need permits. You often need peacekeepers, press liaisons and police liaisons. You might need street medics and people that are handling food, water or need to check for accessibility. You need to figure out how to tell everyone and there has to be plans in case things go wrong.”
Kaplan emphasizes that finding ways to get involved with the organization process is valuable. Whether it’s joining a group, like AACS that focuses on ways to support and enhance the community and ways to connect directly with people in power to demand changes or just helping spread the word and making sure that people are informed.
“Even if it’s just within your capacity to do something really small, like donating to one of those organizations or just telling your friends about it, because the more people you tell the more opportunity there is for other people to find that way into activism,” Kaplan said.
As for the future of San Luis Obispo, Kaplan is optimistic.
“Not necessarily that change is going to come from the top, but I think people have shown their willingness to support each other and find ways to make change on their own,” Kaplan said. “I think SLO wants to be progressive, but it’s SLO … but there’s a loud voice of change in SLO.”
Kaplan acknowledges the town’s makeup of local retirees and college-aged kids make for an interesting dynamic of extreme differing views.
“It’s sort of difficult to wrap my head around, honestly,” Kaplan said. “It seems obviously wrong to have all these charges [against Tianna and Elias]. But I realize there’s a large SLO population that feels the exact opposite.”
However, Kaplan is excited for the future of the town.
“I am optimistic about SLO and the Central Coast because I’ve seen all the work that people are putting in.”
Kaplan said that there are multiple ways people can support the Black Lives Matter Movement.
“[There are] different roles that people play in creating change,” Kaplan said. “It’s got builders, healers, artists, storytellers, verge, frontline responders, caregivers, disruptors and visionaries. Not everyone can contribute the same way to a social movement, but everyone does have a part they can play.”