Lawyers, med students and surfers protest Monday against racism, pay respects to George Floyd

Man with a raised fist
Protesters demanding racial justice in the United States take part in a protest in part led by federal defenders and public defenders Monday in downtown San Diego.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Calls for social justice stretch across San Diego County


Public defenders. Medical students. Surfers. Across San Diego Monday, some marched, some spoke out, some paddled out, and all for the same reason: to confront police brutality and racial injustice in America.

Monday marked two weeks since George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Video of the incident sparked outrage and protests across the country and in San Diego County, decrying racism and police brutality.

In downtown San Diego, some 200 public defenders marched down Broadway. On the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla, another 200 or more medical students gathered in a campus quad.

In both places, participants took a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time Floyd was down under the officer’s knee, despite saying he could not breathe.

And at Windansea Beach in La Jolla, the early evening brought out scores more protesters, including about 75 surfers who took part in a ceremonial paddle-out in Floyd’s memory. A woman with a megaphone told the crowd, “Today we paddle for peace.”

‘Voice of the voiceless’

Around midday, scores of attorneys marched from the Federal Defenders of San Diego office to the federal courthouse on Broadway. The rally was similar to gatherings of public defenders in California and beyond.

“The police in this country routinely brutalize black people with impunity. For too long, society has looked the other way,” said attorney Sarah Peloquin, reading a statement on behalf of the Federal Defenders of San Diego.

“We stand with the protesters in the streets who are fighting for a better country,” Peloquin said. “We stand with those fighting to breathe.”

Many in the crowdwore white T-shirts with the words, “Black lives matter to public defenders.” Signs held in the air read, “Dismantle the system,” “End police terror” and “Stop pretending that your racism is patriotism.”

Social justice advocate and former deputy public defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright said public defense lawyers have long known that the criminal justice system amounts to a knee on a black person’s neck.

“It will be public defenders who make sure that another neck will never be restricted in another way,” she said.

Deputy Public Defender Andrew Feaster criticized local law enforcement agencies, calling out the high suicide rates in county jails and the use of taxpayer funds to settle cases of misconduct by law enforcement officers. He called for a ban on the use of tear gas and “real” de-escalation policies.

He told the crowd that it’s everyone’s responsibility to use their voice to call for change.

“We are the voice of the voiceless,” he said.

He added: “Justice and freedom for everybody, or nobody.”

‘Racism is a public health crisis’

At about the same time a few miles north in La Jolla, more than 200 people, including a few faculty members and at least two deans, gathered for a noon rally aimed at helping to eradicate racism from campus, from medicine and from the community.

The rally was sponsored by the Anti-Racism Coalition at UCSD School of Medicine. Several of the attendees wore white medical coats. Some carried hand-drawn signs reading “White Coats 4 Black Lives,” which is a national movement.

The event was also a platform to share a demands from students, which include providing time and money for anti-racism training for students and staff; creating positions such as an associate dean of equity, diversity, inclusion; and creating scholarships for students committed to improving the health of black communities.

During an open-mic portion of the rally, several people stepped forward to speak. Many were students. Most were people of color.

“For one of the first times in a long time, I really feel like people have believed what they said when they said black lives matter,” new graduate Ian Simpson Shelton told the crowd. “Now let’s put some action behind it and let’s go something about it.”

Speakers also noted their non-black “allies” in the fight, thanked them for their voices and asked them to continue.

“I swear to you, you have a family member that’s racist, and you need to call them out,” neuroscience student Melonie Vaughn said. “Because we are tired of doing it.”

Among those at the rally was Cheryl Anderson, founding dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science.

“Racism is a public health crisis in America, and we must change it,” Anderson told the crowd.

She and other officials with UC San Diego Health Sciences and School of Medicine leadership are meeting Tuesday to discuss student demands. “I sense they will be embraced,” she told the Union-Tribune.

Fourth-year medical student Betial Asmerom, who led the campus rally, said it was a list of demands students had been pushing for a few years.

“It’s important for the institution to understand that we mean business,” Asmerom said. “I think that’s a great first step, but looking at it isn’t enough.”

“If you care about it,” she said, “you have to put money behind it.”

‘I understand that I will never understand’

Later Monday, the crowd gathered at Windansea was mostly young and white. Nicole Paul of Pacific Beach carried a sign that read, “I understand that I will never understand, but I stand with you.”

A crowd of a few hundred on the beach chanted “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No Peace” and other slogans, while signs included “If you are not livid you are not listening.”

On one surfboard: the 20 names of black people who had been killed or beaten by police. On another were Floyd’s last words: “I didn’t do nothing serious, man. Please, please, I can’t breathe.”

Attorney Dante Pride — a Solana Beach resident and surfer — spoke about the challenges he faced growing up black in San Diego.

“At 14, I was slammed on the head by police,” he said. “I’m pulled over in this city at least once a month, and I don’t get tickets most of the time.”

He led the crowd in a chant.

“No justice, no peace,” he said. “Now let’s catch some waves.”