How much has the world changed in a year?
The question remained aloft as over 200 people gathered in front of the Santa Cruz Courthouse on the evening of May 25, the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.
The community gathering and vigil was hosted by the Santa Cruz chapter of the NAACP and Santa Cruz Black Coalition for Justice and Racial Equity, drawing over a dozen speakers, musicians, and spoken word performers before the crowd. The phrase “our work continues” — uttered at various times throughout the night — served as the gathering’s informal throughline.
Brenda Griffin, president of the Santa Cruz NAACP, said the process of selecting speakers and performers was highly intentional.
“I wanted the speakers to reflect the participants of the [George Floyd] marches,” Griffin said in an interview. “It was great when this time last year everybody was fired up, and going out in the streets and doing a lot of things. It’s a year later and we need to keep that fervor.”
Photos by Thomas Sawano.
Both recounting the events of the past year and looking to the future, the night’s speeches and performances were a mosaic of perspectives on injustice. Local singer Tammi Brown, who was among the evening’s opening performers, sang “Glory” by Common and John Legend, a song that, much like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” speaks of persevering through hardship to continue the fight against bondage.
A full stop punctuated the line of words and song. Officiated by a man who went by the name Everybody, the crowd sat in silence for nine minutes and 29 seconds — the length of time convicted police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck.
“George’s life mattered,” Everybody said at the end of the vigil. “Imagine having a knee on your neck for that long.”
George Floyd wasn’t the night’s only point of focus. Numerous speakers spoke of Tamario Smith, a 21-year-old who died in police custody at the Santa Cruz County Jail on May 10, 2020 after consuming enough water to cause cardiac arrest. In Feb. 2021, Smith’s family filed a complaint against a slew of county officials, alleging wrongful death, failure to properly supervise and discipline, and a violation of due process in the handling of Smith’s detention, among nine other allegations.
The event also featured three speeches by Asian American women who spoke on the recent hate crimes perpetrated against their community, including the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings that claimed eight lives.
Breaking up the visceral accounts of the violence done to Floyd and other American minorities were a series of musical showcases by local artists. A clear highlight was the performance of Senegalese drum and dance group Domu Africa, lead by djembe player Mbor Faye.
Gregory Speed, a poet and longtime Community Safety Officer (CSO) at UC Santa Cruz, delivered a performance titled “Grown Man Scriptures” that melded both ambiances.
“And so it begins again,” Speed said. “Each and every time another Black or Brown body falls, as they continue to unleash the proverbial fires in hell upon us, until death gives a n***a peace. Until death gives a Negus peace.”
The ultimate purpose of the event, said NAACP president Brenda Griffin, was to inspire lasting policy change. Griffin spoke during the event of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, a bill currently before the U.S. House of Representatives that would establish national standards for police department operations, mandate data collection on police encounters, reallocate federal funds toward community-based policing solutions, and streamline the process for prosecuting police abuse and excessive use-of-force cases in federal courts.
“We have a long way to go,” Griffin said. “That conviction of Chauvin was just the first step. […] We cannot stop until we get some radical change. Not only in policing, but in housing, in education, employment — all of them. We have to seed change. People ask, ‘what can I do?’ We have to stay in the courts and in the streets.”
CHP is publishing this story during the week of June 7 as part of a backlog on unpublished content from spring 2021. The article was originally written on May 26.