Black Lives Matter activists formed a human chain at El Diamante early Friday morning to protest the Visalia Unified School District’s (VUSD) decision to take down the signs memorializing fallen Black souls. Activists used caution tape to link themselves in front of the signs, a symbol of solidarity among students, educators and members of the community.
Gloves, mask, sanitizer and social distancing were encouraged and used to reduce the chance of fanning the flames of the recent COVID-19 surge across California.
Brandon Gridiron, Visalia Unified’s Administrator of Equity and Student Services, was also present acting as a representative for VUSD. His presence was first and foremost to ensure students’ safety after previous altercations between community members and protesters. District representatives also attended the demonstration to announce the District’s decision to honor the demands made by the students.
Protesters stood for hours in the sun, chanting the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain. No District officials made no moves to take down the signs. Instead, they engaged individual activists in dialogue and waited for demonstrations to end before attempting to reveal the decision to meet the student’s demands.
Organizers disbanded the human chain later that afternoon, and opened up the floor for discussion. Students gathered on the sidewalk and took turns sharing their personal experiences within the District. They shared stories of racism, homophobia, and a variety of concerning allegations against members of the school system. It was a forum emulating the #DearVUSD hashtag trending on Twitter and Reddit.
#dearVUSD remember the time one of your football players brought a knife to school and we didn’t go on lockdown bc you didn’t want redwood to have a bad reputation?
— jordaaan🦋 (@jjordygallardo) July 1, 2020
#DearVUSD my daughter was sexually abused in the classroom by a fellow student but you did nothing. She was forced to see him on campus every day after reporting the incident because you said there wasn’t enough evidence. District Attorney pressed charges & u still did NOTHING
— Gwen Broyles-Smith (@gwenji1977) July 3, 2020
#DearVUSD the school outed one of my close friends in middle school to her parents and she got sent to military school and they also outed at least 3 other students that year 🖕🖕🖕
— Kat | BLM (@katbehere) July 2, 2020
To all Visalia students sharing their experiences of sexual abuse, racism, discrimination, homophobia, and harassment and everyone following #DearVUSD today, we see you and we hear you. The assault, abuse, and/or harassment you experienced was not your fault. (1/2)
— Family Services of Tulare County (@FamilySvcsTC) July 1, 2020
Once all students had spoken, Gridiron approached the megaphone in hopes of finally initiating a public discussion with protesters, but he was met with resistance. Some activists insisted on preventing him from speaking.
One activist in particular, Danielle Lickey, 27, a private educator and first time participant in the protests, was very vocal about why Gridiron should not be allowed to speak. She claimed that he was attempting to “brainwash” the students.
However, Gridiron was eventually granted a megaphone and given the opportunity to talk. But because efforts throughout the day to express his support and willingness to compromise with students as a member of the District had fallen short time and time again, he decided to shift gears and call upon his personal experiences as a father and a Black man from Visalia.
District’s Plea for Compromise Divides Protesters
Gridiron shared an impassioned story about how he had attended over twenty funerals growing up, how he had to be cautious about wearing dark clothing at night, how he struggled to be recognized as an educator because of his skin color and how his daughter feared for his life so much that she felt compelled to give her father a “lucky unicorn bracelet” to keep him safe.
Afterwards, Gridiron reminded students once again that he was there to fight alongside the students in solidarity and was more than willing to work with them to meet their needs.
“I came out here with the purpose of fighting with you,” he explained. “I’ve said this and I’ll say it before, I stand in solidarity with you against the fight of racism, injustice, and violence.”
He then announced the District has committed to the four demands made by student leadership in a closed forum on Monday:
- Mural to Memorialize Signs
- Re-location of BLM Signs
- Free Speech Spaces on Campus for Students
- Weekly Public Forums
Unfortunately, Gridiron’s speech and intentions of compromise once again failed to resonate with some protesters.
Lickey took to the megaphone immediately after and criticized Gridiron for failing to call out his peers in the District:
“Don’t tell me that ‘I’m with you, I’m this, I’m that’ if you can’t even stand up to the people that you work with,” Lickey said. “You can’t even call them out by name. This is 400 years in the making. You have to demand them to change. Force them to change.”
By this point, emotions were running high. It had been nearly a full day since the protest had started. The solidarity and unity between the District and the students displayed in the morning was no longer to be found. And the dialogue had devolved into unproductive exchanges.
Activists seemed divided between the statements made by Gridiron and Lickey, with some appreciating and willing to accept the District’s efforts to compromise, while others preferred to push for more drastic change like the immediate removal of VUSD staff and students who were called out.
Organizer Leila Mori, 30, supported Lickey’s comments, stating that they were not satisfied with “Brandon’s attempts to pacify the situation as quickly as possible”. She claimed that Gridiron was argumentative and was “gaslighting” direct questions from students. In addition, she was critical of the District for holding the closed forum where only a handful of students were involved in negotiations that ultimately affected the student body and community as a whole.
Other activists were more critical of Lickey. They believed she hijacked the protest from student leadership and discounted Gridiron’s consistent attempts to work with them.
Organizer Serena Salcido, 19, felt that both Gridiron and Lickey were in the wrong for losing sight of the “what the whole protest was about”. It was supposed to be a discussion for students to be heard. But In the end, it looked more like a feud between a member of the District and a private school educator with no previous involvement in the protests.
Salcido stated that she did not attempt to stop the dispute because “their voices were just as important.”
What Happens Next?
It was difficult to judge based on the exchanges if any headway had been made between the District and the students. There seemed to be no consensus among those present, but Gridiron released a statement after the protest expressing his optimism and call for unity.
Dear Fellow Visalians,
It is with deep sorrow and concern that I share this message. I feel compelled to write to you now that fear, anger, and frustration are manifesting across our country and right here in Visalia. The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have impacted our entire country and people all around the world. For many of us, this is just another reminder of the many other recent tragedies that have occurred, a reminder of the cruel history of events that have taken place in our country, and the reality that things still need to change. The anger, fear, and outrage that are being demonstrated are a manifestation of this reality and a demand for this change. It is without question that things need to change, in fact they must change, not just for this generation, but for generations to come.
I still believe Dr. Kings’ dream that our children will grow up in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A dream “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal.” Despite the difficulties and frustration at the moment, I still have that dream. In the words of Dr. King, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” This is that time, our time to band together to ensure Dr. Kings’ dream becomes a reality, and to work together to ensure the necessary changes for the betterment of our community and this nation.
This fight must include all of us (Doctors, Educators, Lawyers, Law Enforcement, Parents, Religious Leaders, Students…our entire community), all of us demonstrating that we can work together for equality and justice. Our community needs it, and we deserve it.
In the words of Cesar Chavez, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community…Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
We are in this together!
Salcido and other organizers believed the protest was a success and was a move towards progress despite the dispute between Gridiron and Lickey during the talks.
College of the Sequoia professors were present at the demonstration in support of the students and some felt perhaps it was time for the students to move on to greener pasture and embrace the decision to move the signs to COS.
Gridiron told the students that the college’s police department has committed to patrolling the parking lot daily to ensure the signs stay untouched. The lot also has cameras, he said, which would reveal any vandals who attempted to remove or deface them.
“I think that these students have outgrown their high school,” Anthropology Professor Dr. Marla Prochnow explained. “I think they’re ready to come to college. Symbolically, it’s the right move because this is bigger than a K-12 district. We have curriculum and teachers that teach about these topics.”
Student organizers were appreciative of the gesture from the professors, but still felt that the decision to move the signs defeats the purpose of attempting to enact change at VUSD by bringing that sort of curriculum to the K-12 system.
“Give more ethnic studies, Diego Montor, 19 explained. “Give more education on LGBTQ, sexual education, and on consent…It is our district’s fault that these problems are happening and nothing is being done about them because they never properly educated students.”
Gridiron assured students there are classes like that coming down the pipeline at a state-level, but again, that sort of change is a process and takes time to incorporate into the system.