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Despite worries, Martinez BLM protest draws 1,000 in peaceful solidarity

The lead-up to Sunday’s Martinez protest was filled with angst about potential violent confrontations. What happened was anything but.

The rally and march was organized after David Nelson, 53, and Nicole Anderson, 42, began painting over a newly created and city-permitted Black Lives Matter mural on Court Street, directly in front of the city’s Superior Court of California. The July 4 incident was captured on cell phone video and went viral, attracting national attention.

The pair was later charged with hate crimes by the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office.   

Precipitating the mural were reports of white nationalist flyers being distributed around Martinez in the last week of June. The mural was a response to the racist messaging and was approved by the City Council. 

Nik Wojcik/SFBay The Black Lives Matter mural on Court Street in Martinez, Calif. became a subject of national attention after a man and woman attempted to paint over the lettering, calling it racist.

Martinez Police Chief Manjit Sappal issued an alarming statement Saturday notifying the public that he had become aware of several social media posts indicating that “folks with different viewpoints will be in our city to protest.” 

The chief added:

“(D)o not come to the protest armed or with an intention to commit violence.”

In preparation, several downtown streets were barricaded, businesses closed down for the day and windows boarded up, some painted with messages supporting the BLM movement.

As scheduled, protesters gathered in front of the courthouse at 4 p.m. Sunday. At the peak, the crowd had grown to an estimated 1,000 participants, with masks worn by nearly all in sight. Organizers several times reminded the crowd to stay distanced as much as possible and to keep masks on.

Speakers with Together We Stand, a nonprofit activist group from Richmond, used a speaker system set up in the center of Court Street to set the tone.

Just minutes into the first speaker, a man entered the protest crowd and began screaming:

“All lives matter!”

Nik Wojcik/SFBay One man pushes into a group of Black Lives Matter protesters held in Martinez, Calif. on Sunday, July 12, 2020 and screams, “All lives matter.”

Organizers swiftly diverted attention back to the event and implored the crowd not to engage with the man or the handful of others who at times yelled at protesters from the sidelines. That was the extent of confrontation through the day.

They called on allies to not just be there, but to hold the line of solidarity through the march and in their daily lives.

Xochitl Johnson, local Refuse Fascism activist, said:

“This isn’t just in Martinez. This is white supremacy across the country being goaded on by the White House. For them it’s open season on us.”  

Nik Wojcik/SFBay Approximately 1,000 protesters came out to support the Black Lives Matter movement Sunday, July 12, 2020 in Martinez, Calif.

A long-time Martinez resident who only identified himself as Eric came out to protest and march Sunday for the first time in his life. He told SFBay:

“It just blows my mind that after a billion years we haven’t progressed any farther than the primordial ooze that we came out of. … I’m tired of this. I think a lot of people are starting to wake up and even though this is a quiet little town, it shows that it can happen anywhere.”

Eric added:

“The only voice I have is being here and being with a multitude of voices. I mean, I can kick and scream all I want — I can get on Twitter and say my piece. Does that have a lasting effect? No. But the more voices we have together, that can effect change.”

Protesters marched down to the waterfront park where speakers from various organizations led the crowd from the bed of a red truck. On the side of the truck was a sign that spelled out names of black and brown people killed by police. The list began with Oscar Grant.

Nik Wojcik/SFBay Rick Perez speaks out at a Black Lives Matter protest in Martinez, Calif. on Sunday, July 12, 2020. His son, Richard “Pedie” Perez, was killed by Richmond police in 2014.

Rick Perez, the father of Richard “Pedie” Perez, who was killed by Richmond police in 2014, spoke Sunday. Also there to speak was Taun Hall, mother of Miles Hall, who was fatally shot in June 2019 by Walnut Creek police while he suffered a mental health crisis.

She said:

“I’m trying to save your life and your loved ones lives. … Mental illness should not be a reason to come out and kill my kid.”

The day was hot and the area provided little respite from the 96 degrees beating down. Free water was passed out through the event and several medics were on hand to help people under heat stress. Still, in the heat protesters were asked to kneel on one knee in not just one, but for eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence — the length of time a Minneapolis officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. 

Most took a knee and the park remained silent for the nearly nine minutes. 

After several speakers, organizers carefully directed the crowd again to not engage with any agitators as they exited the park. Slowly, people trickled out and left peacefully.

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