Six years ago, Tianna Arata began her journey as an activist when she protested the death of Michael Brown in 2014. In July 2020, she was charged with five felonies and three misdemeanors for the events that occurred at a protest she organized. Now, she is officially charged with 13 misdemeanors, and will appear in court on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 8:30 a.m.
Here’s how she got there.
“We [San Luis Obispo] lack diversity. We lack voice. We lack community, and it’s suffocating. I feel every day in this town like I can’t breathe. I am being suffocated.”
Following the murder of George Floyd, 46-years-old, by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, Black Lives Matter protests ensued across the nation.
George Floyd was arrested after a store clerk alleged he had used a counterfeit $20 bill. Once Floyd was arrested and handcuffed, former police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
While Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, Floyd became unconscious. It wasn’t until emergency medical services (EMS) came to the scene that Chauvin removed his knee from Floyd’s neck and EMS took Floyd to the hospital where he was pronounced dead after suffering a cardiac arrest.
All four officers at the scene, including Chauvin, were fired the day after Floyd’s death. Chauvin was later arrested and has since been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
In response to the death of Floyd, protests erupted throughout the nation and San Luis Obispo joined in on the fight for racial equality.
San Luis Obispo initially responded to the death of Floyd on May 30 with a solidarity event. Approximately 40 activists stood on the corner by the San Luis Obispo Police station, holding signs and raising their fists.
This was just the beginning.
The following day on May 31, R.A.C.E. Matters SLO organized a protest through downtown. Hundreds marched for the “Act Now for Justice” protest, including San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell and two other officers.
To kick off the protest, local activist and former Cuesta College student Tianna Arata spoke.
“We [San Luis Obispo] lack diversity. We lack voice. We lack community, and it’s suffocating,” Arata said. “I feel every day in this town like I can’t breathe. I am being suffocated.”
The protest included an eight-minute and 46 second moment of silence while everyone laid in the street. It ended peacefully.
The second day of protests ended differently.
For four hours, protesters marched throughout the city. At one point they entered Highway 101 and blocked traffic in both directions for about 30 minutes.
Cal Poly football quarterback Jalen Hamler was active in the protest. He said that the moment they occupied the highway felt like the moment that they were finally being heard.
“That was the one thing that really sparked us to get going in this thing and it’s been just great to get out there and march with people in unity to make this town more positive and push for more diversity,” Hamler said.
Law enforcement in riot gear later blocked protestors at Walnut Street and Santa Rosa Street. After many protesters dispersed due to the blockade, about 200 protesters remained.
Law enforcement gave the protesters a five-minute warning to disperse, yet many stayed. Chief Cantrell declared it an “unlawful assembly.”
Tear gas, firecrackers and rubber bullets were used to disperse the crowd, deployed by officers who hours before had kneeled alongside protesters.
Hamler, who was teargassed during the event, said it was due to a lack of communication between the protesters and law enforcement. He called it a crazy experience.
A total of seven arrests were made.
Afterward, more than a dozen protests were organized through July 21. Most were organized by students and student-athletes, including Hamler and Arata.
“Others may feel like I should shut up and play football or just come to school and do what I’m supposed to do, but I feel like at the end of the day that we all have purposes outside of sports,” Hamler said.
July 21 protest
Arata, who had participated and spoken at numerous protests prior, helped organize the July 21 Black Lives Matter protest which started at 4 p.m. in Mitchell Park. It started with speeches from the organizers before protesters began marching through downtown.
Arata helped organize the protest with her friend and local activist Melissa Elizalde. Elizalde said they were inspired to organize this as a protest had not happened since the last one they had organized on July 4.
On July 20, one day before the protest, San Luis Obispo Sheriff Ian Parkinson said that he had never seen systemic racism in San Luis Obispo County. Although the protest was organized before Parkinson’s statement, Elizalde said that it “shifted the message” and influenced their protest.
Police Captain Brian Amoroso told Mustang News in an email that Chief Cantrell and Arata communicated prior to the July 21 protest via text. Arata told Chief Cantrell that the protest would be peaceful.
Elizalde recalled the day of the protest as one filled with high spirits, and it was an overall nice day.
At 7 p.m., protesters marched onto Highway 101, blocking both sides of traffic for about an hour.
While blocking traffic, a motorist accelerated and struck a protester. Protesters retaliated and damaged the hood of the car and smashed the back window, which police say shattered on a four-year-old in the back seat.
At about 8:30, after the protest had concluded and protesters dispersed, Arata was arrested by San Luis Obispo police officers while she was packing her car to leave with other protest organizers.
In a video taken during the arrest, one witness said, “She is not resisting,” as Arata was placed in a police vehicle.
Tianna’s arrest and case
Arata was booked in the county jail at about 11 p.m. where she stayed for just two hours after being released. Her bail was set at $75,000, but she was released without bail due to COVID-19 precautions at the facility.
Arata then faced a total of eight charges: four felony counts of false imprisonment, one felony count of conspiracy and three misdemeanor counts of participating in a riot, resisting or obstructing a peace officer and unlawful assembly.
Chief Cantrell said that all charges they recommended are lawful and appropriate and the police department stands by them.
“The facts are, Tiana Arata was arrested for her own actions, for her own behavior, for her own decision,” Chief Cantrell said. “She broke several laws. She committed several crimes.”
One of Arata’s attorneys, Curtis Briggs, called the charges “extremely bogus” and “completely retaliatory.”
Briggs explained that other charges Arata may face, such as vandalism, are not supported by the law, as she cannot be charged with a crime someone else committed and she did not participate in.
“These charges really were designed to intimidate her and for the police chief to save face,” Briggs said.
Briggs learned about Arata’s case when her family contacted him. He was immediately interested in the case, as it is what he calls a “cause case,” or an opportunity for him to insert himself in a worthwhile cause. In Arata’s case, he’s working to assist the Black Lives Matter movement.
He said that he is offering Arata pro bono legal services, meaning he is not charging Arata for any legal fees. Any money donated to Arata aids in other fees such as Brigg’s travel and housing expenses when aiding in the case.
It is important for Briggs that his legal team does not take any money to represent Arata, he said.
“It’s a way for us to give to the Black Lives Matter cause,” Briggs said.
Briggs said he hopes this case will have a national impact and show law enforcement how not to treat Black Lives Matter protesters.
Arata’s legal team is composed of attorneys from different areas. Joining him are other national civil rights lawyers and San Luis Obispo criminal defense attorney Patrick Fisher. Briggs said it is important to have a local attorney on their team due to their rapport in the community.
Briggs said that Arata’s civil rights have been violated as the charges impede on her first amendment rights and are targeted at her due to her race and her strong influence in the community.
District Attorney Dan Dow had not decided on whether or not to pursue the recommended charges against her as of Aug. 29.
Briggs said he is confident that Arata will receive a full acquittal, as she is “factually and theoretically innocent.”
The Free Tianna Movement
In response to Arata’s arrest, the Free Tianna Coalition formed. The organization’s main goal was to convince District Attorney Dan Dow to not pursue the recommended charges against Arata.
Elizalde worked to create the coalition in just two weeks, seeking mentorship from Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
Social media has aided the coalition in gaining support nationally, garnering more than 19,000 signatures on their petition against the charges as of Aug. 29.
“The whole world is watching,” Elizalde said.
Organizations that have joined the coalition include local groups such as R.A.C.E. Matters SLO and Women’s March, San Luis Obispo. National organizations, including Don’t Shoot PDX in Portland and Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, have also joined in support.
At the Aug. 25 #FreeTianna press conference and rally organized by the coalition, local and national activists gave speeches in support of Arata and the dropping of charges against her.
The press conference began with a speech from Arata’s attorney, Briggs. He had three requests: the dropping of charges against Arata, termination of Police Chief Deanna Cantrell and for San Luis Obispo citizens to keep an open mind about the case.
At a virtual press-conference, Chief Cantrell called Briggs’ request for her termination as “off-base.” Two days later, Chief Cantrell announced her transfer to the City of Fairfield as Police Chief. The recruitment process began in May and her last day with SLOPD will be Sept. 30.
Other notable activists that spoke at the press conference included Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.
“I want to be very clear that this struggle that we are engaged in, this struggle that Tianna is forging here in San Luis Obispo is not a theoretical struggle,” Abdullah said. “This is a struggle about real lives, about real people.”
Hundreds of activists were present at the press conference, some traveling hours to attend.
When Arata took the stage, she explained her experience since moving to San Luis Obispo at age 16. Arata said that she moved frequently as a child, and while growing up as a constant outsider, she felt it was critical to be inclusive and to show love and hospitality to all people.
“My passion, my goal and my energy is directed towards enacting change. I want to be able to provide the courage to let people flourish, to take down these systems that are failing every marginalized community.”
After the press conference, an “Embracing the Joy” rally was held with live performers, music and more speakers. The rally was inspired by Arata’s claim that her joy can never be taken away from her.
“We wanted to make our voices heard in a peaceful way and show that, you know, there is Black and brown people in this county that do experience racism,” Elizalde said. “But we also can show how, you know, we still are joyful.”
Elizalde and Arata both organized protests, some on their own and some in collaboration, but Elizalde said that they were stronger when they worked together.
The duo became friends about three years ago, but it was not until they began protesting together in May that they became “best friends,” according to Elizalde.
Elizalde is also the campaign manager for the Free Tianna Coalition.
“The whole reason we started this in the first place was so that SLO could be a great place to live for everyone that comes here. No matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter who you love.”
Being thrown into the national spotlight has not been a pleasant experience for Elizalde. She said she receives constant harassment online and in-person, increasing tremendously since Arata’s case has gained national attention.
Although her experience has been traumatic, she said she has found a support system with Arata and Arata’s mother as they work through their trauma together.
Since the July 21 protest, Elizalde has moved out of the county to attend school. She declined to disclose where in order to ensure her safety. Although she has moved, her best friend’s story is still prevalent around her and it is something that she has been able to speak more about.
For example, a protest was marching through her neighborhood and she heard protesters talking about Arata. She walked up to them and talked to them about Arata. It was a “crazy experience” for Elizalde, she said.
As Elizalde and Arata have spent numerous hours together over these past months, organizing and marching in protests, they have grown to know each other inside and out.
Elizalde described Arata as “positive and warm,” and capable of making anyone feel safe.
“[Arata] really just advocates for everyone and just wants a community and a country where everyone can just coexist,” Elizalde said.
Together they have a saying: “All lives won’t matter until fat, Black, trans women’s lives matter.” This is meant to encompass all the social issues they are fighting for, and that they won’t stop fighting until everyone’s voice is heard.
“The whole reason we started this in the first place was so that SLO could be a great place to live for everyone that comes here,” Elizalde said. “No matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter who you love.”
On Sept. 2, District Attorney Dan Dow formally charged Arata with 13 misdemeanors, including five counts of false imprisonment, six counts of obstruction of a thoroughfare, one count of unlawful assembly and one count of disturbing the peace by loud noise.
Arata appeared in court on Sept. 3, and her attorney asked to postpone her arraignment date to Thursday, Sept. 17 at 8:30 a.m. On Thursday, she will enter a plea and have the opportunity to request a trial.