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Young Black activist’s arrest during George Floyd protest in San Luis Obispo sparks a new movement

Activist Tianna Arata addresses supporters outside the San Luis Obispo County courthouse.
Activist Tianna Arata, 20, stands on the steps of the San Luis Obispo County courthouse Tuesday as supporters gather to protest her arrest after a July antiracism rally in San Luis Obispo.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In July, Tianna Arata helped organize an antiracism protest in San Luis Obispo, hoping to bring the message of racial justice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd to the Central Coast community.

The rally began at a local park. But at some point, more than 300 protesters blocked traffic on U.S. 101. Police say at least two cars were vandalized. Arata, a 20-year-old college student, was arrested.

Her arrest has since become a rallying point for members of Black Lives Matter and other activist groups. On Tuesday, hundreds of people showed up to a news conference and rally outside the San Luis Obispo courthouse to stand in solidarity with Arata.

“Tianna’s freedom is about all of our freedom,” Melina Abdullah, Pan-African studies professor at Cal State L.A. and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, shouted into a microphone as supporters gathered on the sidewalk and held signs that read “Free Tianna.”

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Supporters of activist Tianna Arata rally outside the San Luis Obispo County courthouse.
Supporters of Tianna Arata rally outside the San Luis Obispo County courthouse Tuesday. Arata is facing eight charges in connection with an antiracism demonstration she helped organize last month.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Counter-protesters were also present at the event.

Police have argued that the charges against Arata are fair and warranted.

“She wasn’t arrested for lawfully protesting,” San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell said. “She was arrested because of her own actions and her own behaviors, and she is the one that violated laws.”

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Following the rally, Cantrell and San Luis Obispo City Manager Derek Johnson held a virtual news conference to address questions about Arata’s arrest and other diversity concerns.

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San Luis Obispo leaders answer questions about the arrest of Tianna Arata.

Arata was taken into custody on suspicion of eight charges: four felony counts of false imprisonment; one felony count of conspiracy; and three misdemeanor counts of resisting or obstructing a peace officer, participating in a riot and unlawful assembly, according to the Police Department. She was released later that evening on zero bond.

Now, she’s waiting as the district attorney’s office investigates her case and decides whether to move forward with charges. Her arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 3.

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“It’s super-insane because I never thought I was even going to get arrested in the first place,” Arata told the Los Angeles Times during a Zoom call. “It was completely targeted. … And it obviously seemed like it was to discourage other people from organizing protests in San Luis Obispo.”

Fighting against racial injustice, Arata said, has long been part of her life. The Portland, Ore., native, who moved to San Luis Obispo when she was 16 years old, started her journey as an activist at age 14 after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo.

As demonstrations arose worldwide after Floyd’s death in May at the hands of Minneapolis police, Arata and a group of her friends quickly took to the streets of San Luis Obispo. Arata said comments from the town’s sheriff, Ian Parkinson, that he had “never seen any indication that systemic racism exists” in the county also pushed them to show residents of San Luis Obispo — which is predominantly white — that racial injustice is present even in the “happiest place in America.” (In 2018, a series of racist incidents at Cal Poly sparked much debate, with some Black students on campus saying they did not feel welcome there.)

Activist Tianna Arata
Tianna Arata, who helped spearhead a rally against racial injustice, says her arrest “seemed like it was to discourage other people from organizing protests in San Luis Obispo.”
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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“A lot of people in San Luis [Obispo] specifically, they like to point the finger and say, ‘Oh we don’t have these issues here,’” Arata said. “But we needed people to open their eyes and be like, ‘OK, this affects us.’ This is a group of young Black and brown youth and we’re telling you, we have issues in this community as well. No community is exempt.”

Arata co-organized a protest with her friend, Melissa Elizalde, along with other local youth activists. The demonstration started about 4 p.m. at Mitchell Park near downtown San Luis Obispo.

From Arata’s perspective, the atmosphere was uplifting.

“Everybody was super-positive,” she said about the event. “Cars even on the freeway in general, they were honking in support. [They] were like super-respectful and polite during our moments of silence.

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“It was really joyous. There was a lot of just dancing and positivity and people just expressing how they feel,” Arata added. She spoke to Cantrell about the event in advance.

Tianna Arata, left, hugs friend Nicole Huffman before Tuesday's rally.
Tianna Arata, left, hugs friend Nicole Huffman before Tuesday’s rally outside the San Luis Obispo County courthouse.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

But the Police Department saw it differently. About an hour later, police said protesters got onto U.S. 101, which is the main highway in San Luis Obispo, and began to threaten the safety of motorists, themselves and law enforcement by blocking traffic in both directions for nearly an hour.

While on the highway, police said protesters allegedly damaged the hood and “smashed” the rear window of a passenger vehicle with a 4-year-old child in the back seat. Police also reported that, in an incident that took place off the freeway, some protesters were seen chasing down and throwing objects at a vehicle.

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Drone video footage of an incident involving a gray vehicle was posted on the Police Department’s Facebook page.

Arata and others dispute the police account. They say the video appears to show a protester being dragged onto the hood of the vehicle for a short period of time before the car drives away, narrowly missing Arata and other demonstrators.

Once the protest ended and Arata and a few of her friends were packing up a vehicle, she said, police officers appeared and took her into custody.

“They pushed all my friends out of the way. They weren’t interested in arresting anybody else,” Arata said. “It was completely targeted, and it was frustrating and really disheartening.

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“I was just like, why? Why are you targeting me? What is this going to accomplish?” she said.

A video of Arata’s arrest was shared on social media with the #FreeTianna hashtag.

Another protester, Elias Bautista, was also arrested that evening on suspicion of “assaulting two officers during the arrest” of Arata, Cantrell said. Efforts to support Bautista’s cause have been created.

Cantrell said she supported “peaceful” protesting and would like to continue meeting with activists to figure out ways to “make policing meaningful to our community.”

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“For Tianna and anybody else, if there is a goal to change policing, at some point, we’re going to have to sit down at the table and talk about what that looks like,” Cantrell told The Times by phone.

The police chief said she had an obligation to uphold the rights of all residents, including those on the freeway.

Johnson, the city manager, said he wanted the public to know that the Police Department and local officials “support the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

“We want the voice of Ms. Arata to be heard, and we want safe venues for free expression, and we also need to make sure that people are safe and there isn’t property damage,” he said.

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Hundreds attend a rally in support of Tianna Arata at the San Luis Obispo County courthouse.
Hundreds rally in support of activist Tianna Arata at the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse. Police argue that the charges against Arata are fair and warranted.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Statements that Arata, if convicted, could potentially face up to 15 years in prison quickly circulated on social media. But Dist. Atty. Dan Dow debunked that, saying it was “patently incorrect,” and that any charges she faced would lead to a much smaller sentence in county jail, not prison.

Dow also said it was too soon to speculate what the charges might be presented before Arata’s arraignment.

But one of Arata’s attorneys, Curtis Briggs, said the district attorney’s office was “being completely dishonest about the time she faces.”

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“He’s completely misleading the public,” Briggs said about Dow. "[Tianna] would be incarcerated in a jail. ... She would actually be facing worse conditions in a local jail, which is not designed to give somebody the lifestyle of facing several years in custody. It’s very reasonable to say she would spend four, five, six years in custody.”

During the protest, Briggs called for Cantrell‘s resignation.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said Arata’s case brought up a bigger issue of law enforcement trying to intimidate and silence protesters.

“Tianna is not an anomaly,” Cullors told The Times via email. “She is a part of hundreds of other people who have been criminalized. ... I think we should be praising young leaders for making our country better and stronger. Instead, we have created an environment that has made Tianna out to be something that she is not.”

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For Arata, her arrest is proof that more work needs to be accomplished in San Luis Obispo and beyond.

“Since I’m getting all this national attention, I eventually hope to be able to highlight other issues and not just strictly ‘Oh, Free Tianna,’” she said. “Because the fight in dropping my charges and getting them dismissed is not only for me, it’s for all people who have been mistreated by law enforcement in this country.”


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