AS JORDAN FINISTER read from a roll of black victims of police violence, a crowd of protesters chanted “say their names.” It was an emotional end to the peaceful June 6 protest march that started at the San Benito High School football field parking lot and moved toward downtown on San Benito Street. After a brief stop at the 400 block for speeches, the procession ended in front of the San Benito County Superior Court building on Fourth Street.

Finister’s list ended with the name of the man whose videotaped death has prompted marches around the world: George Floyd, who was killed by police on May 25 in Minneapolis.

A loose confederation of San Benito High alumni organized the Saturday march. All had gone their separate ways after graduation, but were drawn back to Hollister when college classes were canceled.

“We are all back home because of COVID19 and we were having a group chat about doing a protest at the corner near Safeway and it just grew,” said organizer Anthony Sanchez. “We started by thinking a dozen of us would do that, then it became 25 or 30 of us and then it just got bigger and bigger. The movement is bigger than us.”

Over 40 Baler alumni helped organize the march. They expected no more than 200 participants, but in the end, over 1,000 people showed up.

An important part of planning the march was the personal safety of all involved.

“We communicated with the Hollister Police Department throughout the planning because we received a series of threats,” Sanchez said. “People were saying they would run us over or threats to bring guns. These were on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, all over social media. We see the violence across the nation and we have been emphasizing positivity in our posts.”

Protesters march to the San Benito County Court House.

During the week, the Hollister Police Department issued a press release saying they had been in communication with organizers and would be attending. San Benito County Sheriff Darren Thompson also attended.

“I came out today to show that I am truly concerned about the events leading up to the death of George Floyd,” Thompson said. “And I am here to express some solidarity with the community to say we are not going to tolerate hatred, we are not going to tolerate racism, we are not going to tolerate police abuse and I am here to stand to defend people and to stand for justice. I am a small county sheriff with a small footprint, but I am making sure my people get it and that is where it starts.”

Hollister Kid’s Crew founder Gail Hernandez-Muhilly advised the organizers on setup and outreach.

“They approached me because they saw my passion on this issue,” said Hernandez-Muhilly. “As a mom, when you hear someone being murdered and they are crying out for their mom, that brought all mothers in the world together. This won’t change everything but these kids doing this makes a change in every generation.”

Hernandez-Muhilly also heard the concerns of the local black residents.  

“Members of the community reached out to me in fear of attending after some of the comments they read about this not being secure,” she said. “I told them there is more support than they know.”

With the common bond of organizers being San Benito High, the football field parking lot was the natural starting point for the march. 

“Principal Ramirez and the school superintendent sent out a message encouraging staff members to attend,” said Sanchez. “They were excited that alumni were planning this event.”

Baler teachers and staff in bright red shirts joined in to distribute water to the marchers.  

SBHS Principal Adrian Ramirez was on the scene and said, “We felt it was important to our community to recognize what is going on and to support our black students and staff members. We have been coordinating with the organizers and the Hollister Police Department, and everyone was on the same page to make this a safe space for people to exercise their right to peaceful protest. I am very proud of our students for doing this in a way where this is an open dialogue.”

Ramirez cited a statement football coach Bryan Smith posted online prior to the march. “I find myself needing and wanting to be a voice for our present and past student-athletes,” Smith wrote. “I pray that the black men who have come through or will come through our football program have felt loved, felt secure, and lived in an environment that allowed or will allow them to grow.”

Smith attended the march and said, “I don’t know what it is like to be a black man or black woman in our country today, but I do know we need to make a difference in communicating with our youth so they can grow up in a free society.” 

Participants began arriving at the parking lot around 10:30 a.m. Those who arrived without face masks were encouraged to wear one of the paper masks donated by Hollister Cannabis Co., while Teknova provided individual bottles of hand sanitizer. A table with cleaning supplies and masks was set up at the school parking lot, as well as at the 400 Block stop.

The OpenSBC protest on May 1 was on the minds of organizers as they considered how to deal with the challenges of social distancing.

“The biggest difference between what we’re doing and what they attempted to do,” said organizer Raymond Anthony Andrade, “is that we are acknowledging the risk. We know it’s somewhat unsafe. All we can do is try to stay six feet away from each other and wear a mask.”

Prior to the march, Andrade emphasized to protesters the importance of safe social behavior. He also cautioned them to remain peaceful during the march. 

Though people adhered to social distancing when they began the march, the crowd grew denser as the demonstration continued, particularly at the courthouse.

The gathering’s diversity was apparent. Aztec dance group Capulli Izcalli performed a blessing for the protesters. Young people stood with veterans of the farm labor strikes. Entire families assembled, some with children still in strollers. Some demonstrators wore printed Black Lives Matter t-shirts, while others wore shirts covered with handwritten messages of support.

The protest gathers outside the San Benito County Court House.

An assortment of local government figures also participated, including San Benito County Public Information Officer David Westrick (who had recently posted messages in support of Black Lives Matter), Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, Hollister Councilman Rolan Resendiz, San Juan Bautista Councilman John Freeman, and District 2 Supervisor candidates Wayne Norton and Kollin Kosmicki.

Camaxtli Torres of Capulli Izcalli said his group was there to show a positive example.

“We are here for a good cause,” he said. “We are here for good prayers and with good intentions. I really hope there is a change in the fight for basic human rights for people of color. I love how there are so many cultures right here in the crowd. I am seeing all the different shades and I love the unity.”

As the marchers prepared, El Teatro Campesino musician Noe Montoya blessed the protesters with smoke from burning sage. At noon, the Aztec dancers began the march down San Benito Street, met by some residents in front of their homes, holding signs in support.

Few counterprotesters were seen during the march. Some stood on the sidewalk in the downtown area wearing MAGA hats, and a Blue Lives Matter flag was on display. Any concern that there might be a confrontation dissolved as the marchers neared the 400 block.

Several people spoke at the 400 block, including Finister, who stirred the crowd. He related his own experiences with the police, including a time in 2016 when he was pulled over and detained. His companion in the car was terrified of scratching his itchy nose for fear it would provoke the officer.

“We know how we are treated, we know how we are seen,” Finister said. “We know we are seen as criminals before we even commit an act. Even though we both had clean pasts, we were treated and seen as criminals.”

Later Finister said, “I did not want to get up there today and speak. I was scared to do it. But I saw all the people here. I saw kids and older people. I saw people with crutches and people with walkers. There were people from all parts of life and I thought that was important because it shows this is working. Something is clicking in this town. Something is clicking in America. People are starting to get it, people are starting to understand.”

The march made its way to the county courthouse, where participants held a moment of silence for Floyd, after which Finister read of the names of victims of police brutality and protesters chanted “say their names.”

At the end, the crowd dispersed as quietly as it had assembled.

This story was originally published in BenitoLink.