“What does a community do when it is confronted by tragedy? Do we deny its existence?” -Sean Arlt, letter to the editor SC Sentinel
Sean Arlt, who was killed by police on Oct. 16, asked these questions to the Santa Cruz community in an August 2015 Santa Cruz Sentinel letter to the editor after the murder of 8-year-old Maddy Middleton.
The community asked these same questions again on Oct. 22 in the wake of Arlt’s death, when the letter was read aloud at his vigil. Police shot him twice on Oct. 16 after approaching officers with a rake. The police responded to a call from a Westside resident, who said Arlt was banging on his door and threatening him and his family.
His death marks the fifth homicide in Santa Cruz County this year. The vigil was centered around the community and was held on National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality to question the growing militarization and lack of transparency of the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD).
Over 50 people gathered at the Santa Cruz clock tower downtown, holding candles and homemade signs to pay homage to Arlt and honor his friends and family in their time of mourning. Though there were people of all ages, including young children, the majority were at least in their 60s and had seen Santa Cruz change throughout their lives. They expressed a desire for a conversation between SCPD and for establishing more mental health facilities in the county. They peacefully organized in hopes that Santa Cruz doesn’t experience more tragedy.
The vigil itself was a platform to ask the question: How does a community heal after tragedy? Attendees at the vigil explored their own ways of healing, from religious practices to inspiring activism within the community.
For Arlt, the solution to healing he provided in the August letter to the editor was through dialogue, compassion, treating illness and suffering and demanding protection. On Saturday, the community began that same healing process at “The Love Manifesto,” named after a book of poetry penned by Arlt.
“The cure — let us not rebel against our women and men
Let us forgive ourselves” -Sean Arlt, ”The Love Manifesto”
At the gathering, community leaders like Brenda Griffin, vice president of the Santa Cruz chapter of the NAACP and Minister David Grishaw Jones of the Peace United Church were introduced between moments of silence and readings of excerpts of Arlt’s writings.
“We have to be tender and soft, strong and resilient at the same time,” said Jones, as he outlined the intention behind the vigil. “We have to put our minds and bodies at the task of changing the community.”
Jones was one of many religious leaders to speak and worship at the event in order to be inclusive to the community’s diverse beliefs as a whole. Neti Parekh from Santa Cruz Zen Center performed a poem in Japanese, and Rabbi Phil Posner read scripture. Jones also led the candle-bearing group into song while passing cars honked in solidarity to signs reading “Compassion Not Violence” and “Remember Sean Arlt.”
“We are a gentle, angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives,” attendees sang. “We are a land of many colors, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”
“Personal imperfection is the genius to the community
Pain encourages us to heal” -Sean Arlt, ”The Love Manifesto”
These words of Sean Arlt’s poetry in “The Love Manifesto” also inspired the series of grassroots demonstrations taking place this week to question the practices of SCPD, especially involving those with mental illness.
The police knew Arlt had history of mental illness — on Oct. 11, he was placed on a 5150 involuntary mental health hold because of a separate confrontation prior to the incident. A 5150 hold is placed if you are considered to be a danger to yourself or others. Although the hold was released, SCPD were aware of his history of mental illness when responding.
“He was clearly a person in crisis,” said SCPD Deputy Chief Rick Martinez in an interview on Oct. 19. “There was no opportunity for the officers to engage in any dialogue to de-escalate him.”
SCPD are trained to de-escalate crisis situations through conversation, but Martinez said officers felt their lives were threatened.
The SCPD also has a social worker on staff who arrives on the scene with officers and is trained to recognize an individual’s mental state and assess the proper actions the situation requires. But because the call was at 3:30 a.m., no social worker arrived with police.
“This happened here because the culture here made it happen,” said Santa Cruz Mental Health Client Action Network executive director Sarah Leonard at the vigil. Leonard questioned the transparency of the SCPD and their effectiveness of dealing with those with mental illness.
All four officers on scene at the homicide are on administrative leave while the Santa Cruz District Attorney conducts an investigation, in conjunction with an internal investigation conducted by SCPD. Leonard and other community leaders questioned the legitimacy of an in-house investigation proposed by SCPD and its chief, Kevin Vogel, as opposed to one being conducted by a private entity outside of the government.
“[SCPD Deputy Chief] Rick Martinez and Kevin Vogel are good people with good intentions. But they need to release the video, audio and names of the officers,” Leonard pleaded. “This is not transparency.”
In addition to community leaders and activists, anyone with a personal connection to Arlt was welcomed to speak at the vigil. Joldan Ronney, a close friend of Arlt, said he appreciated the emphasis on Arlt’s creativity but also wanted the community to understand how much more there was to the 32-year-old father.
“He had quite an incredible intellect,” Ronney said, “and quite a humor to him.”
Ronney, Arlt’s family and many members of the community want to ensure Arlt’s death was not in vain, and a conversation between the community and the police force continues.
“I want the community to understand [Arlt’s parents] have incredible integrity and compassion,” Ronney said. “They don’t want to be angry. They don’t want you to be angry.”