“I’m just here to remind you, that Dr. King was more than a dreamer. He was a visionary, he was an agitator of the status quo.”
Brenda Griffin, president of the Santa Cruz chapter of the NAACP, spoke these words to the buzzing crowd gathered on Cooper Street. As one of the speakers who presented after the Jan. 15 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. March for the Dream, her voice rang strong and activists, families and community members met her sentiment with enthusiasm.
Earlier that morning at 10 a.m., about 1,000 marchers made their way through downtown Santa Cruz, moving from Cathcart Street down Pacific Avenue. Participants held signs with messages of peace, equity and social justice. All joined to celebrate King’s enduring message.
“We’re here this morning to honor the great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose philosophy of nonviolent action for social change inspires us. His legacy and ideas of a beloved community, they encourage us,” Griffin said to the crowd. “The beloved community for Dr. King is a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.”
As a young minister during the civil rights movement, King served as a primary spokesperson from 1954 until his assassination in 1968. These themes of nonviolent action, social change and a beloved community were central to King’s overarching message, but they weren’t the entirety of it. Less commonly remembered is his support of those engaging in violent misconduct to combat racism, although he personally did not engage in those tactics.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice,” King famously said.
The march was sponsored by the Santa Cruz chapter of NAACP and the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD), stirring conversation around the intent of such a partnership. Griffin explained that after SCPD Chief Andrew Mills brought up the idea of co-sponsoring the march, the NAACP invited him to a meeting to introduce himself.
“He talked about the importance of [the] community-police relationship. We believed he was coming from a sincere place. We accepted his offer,” Griffin said in an email.
Because of the long history of police brutality and violence against Black people in the U.S., the new partnership was met with mixed responses.
Mills recognized this reason for critiques and caution over police involvement in the march. He also noted the importance of working with various community groups in order to build better relationships with them.
“[Because of] the history of our country as of late, and having laws that are unjust that the police are expected to and do enforce — all of these things boil up,” Mills said.
Speaking to the crowd of marchers, Griffin described the partnership with SCPD as a start in building trust with police. She emphasized the march’s partnership was by no means the end of the trust-building process, stating the NAACP will not hesitate to speak out against future injustices involving law enforcement.
“The NAACP will always speak truth to power,” Griffin said in her speech, “so in that beloved community, we envision creating a society wherein the police officers can engage in our community events without being obligated to wear their weapons.”
As Griffin alluded, about 20 police officers who attended the event were dressed in full uniform, weapons included.
Santa Cruz community member Tammi Brown, who performed a song after the march, believes the march and the speeches that followed demonstrated King’s theme of solidifying unity despite differences.
“We are standing and walking hand in hand together, all colors, all people, and uniting against a lot of divisiveness that’s going on in the country right now,” Brown said. “We’re standing to let people know we are one, we’re standing together as brothers and sisters.”
With Black people and people of color repeatedly being targeted across the nation, policy efforts by the Trump administration and structural racism ever-present in many American institutions, community members were quick to acknowledge these national issues. Many participants chose to take the day to focus on how to address these issues on the local level.
Local activist organizations and nonprofits, including Food Not Bombs, Senderos, the Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism and the Economic Justice Alliance of Santa Cruz County, showed up for the cause. Marchers’ banners and posters reflected the intersecting social justice issues the local organizing community advocates for.
“The greatest thing right now is to bridge the difference between people and the message of Martin Luther King,” said Vrinda Quintero, a community organizer with the Economic Justice Alliance. “The nonviolent movement was to love above all and how love was strong and how it could overcome our differences, so I’m here 100 percent behind that.”
Speakers at the march also emphasized the importance of taking tangible steps toward social change, whether it be voting or simply working to better understand someone from a different background.
“Uphold you all’s justice,” Brenda Griffin said at the close of her speech, “especially for those of us who are most vulnerable, until we can make the promises of our democracy real for everyone.”