A helicopter circled overhead and police lined the streets as thousands gathered in Pleasanton for a protest last week.
While protest organizer and woman of color, McKenzie Reese — a 19-year-old former Amador Valley High School student — knew she could get a decent gathering, she didn’t expect to see the crowd of roughly 3,000 people who attended the June 5 event to demonstrate against police brutality. The demonstration was one of many that’s taken place across the nation since video footage was released of a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, killing an unarmed black man, George Floyd, on Memorial Day.
Reese worked alongside such city officials as Councilmember Julie Testa and the staff from the Pleasanton Police Department to secure a safe route and ensure a peaceful protest. She noted her original plan of walking through the heart of the city was declined. Officials had concerns about vandalism against the downtown businesses, some of which were boarded up for the day, but saw no damage.
“The police officers were great,” Reese said, adding she invited other city’s officers to come out and show support.
She said that it was disappointing that they could not march downtown, but that she understood their concerns. While Reese’s efforts were coordinated through city leadership, she noted she encountered some hateful online responses to the flier posted to social media groups ahead of the Friday protest — a flier that called for a peaceful protest and outlined COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“I definitely did receive a lot of hate for posting the fliers,” she said, noting she was even kicked out of a Facebook group for calling out a man’s racist comments. “People were concerned that ‘no justice, no peace’ on the fliers meant we planned to destroy the town. That’s not what it means. It means we’re not going to stop until there is justice, but that demand for change doesn’t have to be violent.”
Reese said she and her team of fellow organizers will meet this week to orchestrate future peaceful protests and continue discussing plans for launching a nonprofit with a focus on social justice.
“I would like my community to know that just because it doesn’t happen in your own backyard or directly in your community, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all,” she said. “And areas like this — Pleasanton, Livermore, Dublin — are very powerful because of how wealthy they are. Their voices are huge and can have a lot of impact.”
Testa expressed pride in her community members who both organized the protest and participated with a powerful but peaceful message.
“The Pleasanton City Council has received well over a hundred emails from the community calling out the need for policy reform and a change of police culture,” she said. “I look forward to the community discussion that will guide change. We have a police department of good men and women, but we can be even better.”
Some Bay Area protests have been predominantly attended by high school and college students, but a wider age range turned out to the Pleasanton demonstration. Toddlers sat on the shoulders of parents who marched beside demonstrators ranging in age from teenagers to those in their senior years. They made their way from the grassy field between the aquatic park and the Safeway shopping center down Santa Rita Road before turning left on Valley Avenue, taking up all four lanes of traffic as cars came to a standstill. Once they reached the intersection of Valley and Hopyard, the activists kneeled for 8 minutes of silence, before returning to the park.
Michael Easter, 21, and his brother Myles Easter, 18, of Pleasanton both spoke passionately about their feelings as young African American men, having watched the video of Floyd’s death.
“It hurt my heart,” Michael said. “Our people have been asking peacefully and quietly for the same opportunity that other people get in the world, but for a long time, we’ve been pushed aside. It’s not just about George Floyd; it’s about all those impacted by police brutality. There’s been a lot of pent-up pain and anger, and right now a lot of that is coming out. We need change now.”
Myles, a recent 2020 graduate of Foothill High School, said continued messaging for action through politicians, media and communities would help bring about sustainable change.
“I don’t hate people because they don’t understand,” Michael continued. “I just wish they would listen.”
Amit and Talia Y. of Pleasanton attended the protest with their children, noting they wanted to support the cause as there seemed to be more hatred in society than when they first immigrated to America 20 years ago. More Pleasanton residents, Brian and Dana Vicente, and their daughter Siena, 14, were also part of the march. Brian, a person of color, said the callousness that Officer Derek Chauvin displayed when he killed Floyd was disturbing.
“It’s going to take a lot for real change to occur; it’s been over 400 years of oppressing people of color in this country and other places as well,” he said, adding that, while he has been followed home by police officers before, the people of Pleasanton have generally been reflective of their town’s name: pleasant. “But I think it’s going to take, first, the acceptance that there is a problem, before working toward finding solutions that can be implemented. Right now, there are too many people willing to be distracted by the few people who are doing the looting. They’re willing to not face the facts, and divert their attention to the looting, as though that’s the problem.”
As the mother of three biracial children living in Pleasanton, Ginger Jones said the issue of police brutality and inequality impacts all lives, as she marched down Valley Avenue holding a sleepy toddler to her chest.
“I want my girls to grow up in a world where they’re safe,” she said, adding she felt the response from the community was a good start.
Others called for activism even when the issue doesn't directly impact them. One 16-year-old protester from Pleasanton named Allison stood with her family while holding a sign that read, “If you ignore the problem, you are part of it.”
“If you pretend this problem doesn’t exist,” she said, “it enables the system of oppression to keep going, so you have to speak out about it.”
Protester and attorney Jennifer Hanrahan of Pleasanton agreed.
“We’ve been trying to listen to our friends and are trying to understand better,” Hanrahan said. “One of my lifelong friends is from Jamaica, and he’s shared experiences with me about being stopped by police, but he said, ‘I can’t do it without you soccer moms.’ He said to help, we needed to speak up and go to protests.”
Both people of color originally from the United Kingdom and now living in Pleasanton, Sarah and Taran Jefferson said change was especially important in America, as the wo rld tends to follow this country’s progressive lead.
“It seems very hypocritical that we're going through this and the world is seeing this as an example of how to treat people,” Taran said. “This problem isn’t a matter of a couple of bad apples (in the police department); it's very deeply rooted and very painful for a lot of people.”
Sarah stated the African American communities are tired of systemic and pervasive racism that’s been embedded into society for hundreds of years.
“This situation has reached people globally,” she said. “Now is the time for radical change.”