Mis Ángeles: How A Young Black College Student Helped Ease Tensions In His Hometown
Donald Arrington was setting up a tiny station Wednesday in the large frame of a boarded up window on the east side of the Downey Library.
"I'm not gonna lie, I'm starting to feel a little nervous," he said to some of his fellow protest organizers. It was a scorching hot day and the window nook was the only shade on this normally busy sidewalk just across the street from Downey High School -- my alma mater.
The 19-year-old Cal State Long Beach junior had just one day earlier decided he needed to lead a Black Lives Matter protest in his hometown, where black residents like Donald make up just 4% of the population. So he began texting people. And those people began texting people. And then it just spread.
I asked Donald if he was nervous no one would show up. It was just the opposite. "I think a lot more people are coming," he said. He was right.
About 300 people would wind up shutting down Brookshire Avenue and marching along Firestone Boulevard, two of the city's busiest streets, for perhaps the biggest display of civil disobedience people here can remember.
Boy did Downey need it.
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For days now, the city, known as "The Mexican Beverly Hills" for its affluence and overwhelming ethnic makeup, had been on edge over a nationwide uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd. As I walked the blocks and drove around town the past few days, I saw Downey Police Department patrols everywhere and boarded up storefronts.
Sunday, some people broke into the Stonewood Mall and were quickly stopped and arrested by police. On Wednesday, someone set a fire on the grassy center traffic island on Lakewood Boulevard in front of The Promenade, a popular outdoor mall (the city has three malls all within a mile of each other).
A man ran out with a fire extinguisher from one of the local businesses and a woman got out of her car and stood just feet away from the rising flame while she called 911. By the time I made a U-turn to go back to the fire, the police had shut down the street and the fire department was handling the flames.
I doubled back to the library after my friend Alicia Edquist, a lifelong Downey resident, told me something might be happening. That's where I met Donald, looking happy and possessing a type of calm power despite his youth and his nerves.
He told me he was upset watching police "inciting violence" against peaceful protesters. He told me he was tired of sitting on the sidelines. He told me to use Latinx instead of Latino. He talked about about black trans lives and LGBTQ lives and about the undocumented community. And that he was happy to bring them all together in Downey, of all places.
As he spoke, the sidewalk filled up from three people to fifty, to a hundred until three police officers came out and offered to close off the northbound side of Brookshire. In what felt like an instant, Donald was standing on his step ladder leading the city's young progressives in chants.
It wasn't lost on him or me that we were standing a few feet from the Downey Police headquarters in North Downey, where the city's old money and political power is concentrated.
"Growing up, I noticed that there's a class system and that there are different kinds of people here who are known as the white Latinx community, basically," Donald told me. "You know? The people who feel that they are privileged."
For generations, Downey has been known for racism as much as for its Mexican McMansion or "MexiMansions."
Twenty years ago, when my family moved to Downey from Paramount, the racism was mostly white and conservative. Ten years ago, when Donald's family moved here from Compton, that racism had been taken up by the city's affluent Latinos, people who probably would have gladly voted for any Republican candidate who didn't openly deride Mexicans as rapists and criminals.
In fact, Donald Arrington told me he decided to organize the Downey protest because his Latinx friends (as he insisted I say it) were having a difficult time explaining the recent civil unrest to their more conservative parents.
I felt that.
I have spent too many moments of my life uttering the phrase "no seas racista" to members of my family who say racist things or act racist or even are racist despite being the victims of institutional racism themselves.
A lot of the tension comes from the 1992 Uprising or the L.A. Riots, as those of us who suffered through them call them.
Downey wasn't touched by the riots directly, but for people like my parents who lived through that anguish in the surrounding neighborhoods that are less well off, moving to Downey was an escape from that ever happening again.
The problem with that fear is that it's rooted in racist and imagined images of "looters" burning things and smashing windows who people assume are going to be black but are very often not. Those racist stereotypes are perpetuated further by images of black people depicted as criminals or "thugs" in mass media. In reality, the riots were also about disproportionate poverty in brown communities, just as they were about police violence against the black community.
I had many relatives who participated in the uprising, a fact that I constantly have to remind my family of when they feign outrage over the same three videos of people breaking into storefronts playing on a loop on every local TV station.
So as I stood outside the city library by the protesters the other day, the fact that a college sophomore named Donald Arrington had decided to take all that history on his shoulders and try to unite this community around a message of peace was impressive.
At one point, the young man stood on the library steps and read a letter dedicated to his young brothers saying he hoped there would never need to be marches and protests for them. "I hope your name is never on a list," he said before reading off names like Treyvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor and George Floyd.
"Seeing all this, the youth out here and what he's doing, gives me hope," I heard an Asian American woman say, a longtime Downey resident, who said she'd lived in the city since the 1970s.
"I think this is the biggest protest in Downey ever," a middle-aged Latino man who'd lived in Downey for 30 years told me.
Although the protesters remained peaceful, the city remained on alert. At one point a man on a motorcycle came by and told people in the crowd, "Remember who we are. This is Downey. We are peaceful." An hour later, a man wearing MAGA gear came by on a bicycle, and shouted obscenities at the crowd from a tiny bullhorn.
Donald got off his step and went across the street to talk to the bicycle guy. He tried to get the man to address the crowd, but he kept shouting from his bullhorn. A large chunk of the crowd broke off and swarmed the man because they feared for Donald's safety. In an instant, a line of Downey police dressed in riot gear marched over. And for a second, it looked like we might have the Mexican Beverly Hills' waking nightmare scenario.
But Donald waved everyone back behind the line. The man left. And the riot police marched back to the station with smiles on their faces.
Then something even more magical happened. Donald heard some breaking news, and he jumped back up on his step ladder and told the crowd: "All the officers who murdered George Floyd have now been arrested and charged," he shouted. The crowd erupted into cheers, and my heart felt less broken than it had been in weeks.
The pressure valve in Downey was released. And I heard some business owners were already taking the plywood off their storefronts.
After three hours of chanting, kneeling, and changing the world a tiny bit, the protesters marched east on Firestone Boulevard toward the boarded up Stonewood Mall. Donald brought up the very end of the tiny historic march he launched. He looked well past tired, but incredibly happy.
In the 90 degree weather, the march mostly fizzled out pretty quickly.
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor.
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