Jazzika Dunn of Anaheim Hills said she isn’t the same person she was two weeks ago.
As a 29-year-old Black woman and model who grew up in different Orange County cities, Dunn said racist microaggressions and discrimination constantly marked her formative years; but she added activism was never at the top of her mind and felt disconnected in a county where Black people comprise one of the smallest segments of the population.
Then came the marches, sit-ins, vigils, rallies, and crowds coursing through Orange County streets at the beginning of June, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and protesting local and national issues of police violence and law enforcement oversight and its prioritization in public spending budgets.
So Dunn decided to go to a protest in Anaheim on June 4, the first one she said she’d ever been to.
Chanting “Black Lives Matter” at the steps of City Hall and shouting at the top of her lungs wasn’t something she ever imagined herself doing, she said, but it shook her into what she calls her “true purpose.”
“I flipped the switch,” Dunn said, laughing over the phone as her words sank in. “I am not the same person I was at all.” Now she herself is organizing, starting with a demonstration she held in the place where she grew up, Huntington Beach, on June 13 — about a week before Juneteenth. Around 200 people showed up.
She joins a long list of existing local Black activists and leaders participating in the recent demonstrations across the county, who warn that the energy from the protests needs to carry over to local city council and public agency meetings in order to accomplish any real systemic changes.
The months leading up to local city budget votes are where residents and members of the public will have the best chance at pressuring elected officials into making systemic reforms, like reallocating funding from police departments and redirecting it to other public safety areas like youth and senior programs, parks, and libraries, organizers say.
It’s not just painting pretty posters and waving signs at traffic, said Zoe-Raven Wianecki, a queer Black Santa Ana resident who specializes in organizing over social media, and runs the OC Protests Instagram page. “It’s also going to the meetings that aren’t as fun — going to city council meetings, school boards, physically showing up.”
In a solid majority of Orange County cities — namely the big ones like Santa Ana and Anaheim — the police get the largest allocations of their cities’ hundred-million-dollar spending budgets, if not the lion’s share.
Calls are also growing in the county for more police accountability in the form of official civilian oversight panels.
“We had thousands of people coming out to protests, largely people of color and Black people; that’s the fun part,” Wianecki said. “The not as fun part, but the part that’s most necessary, is getting access to our local leaders … obviously, government meetings are where we need to be.”
Not to mention the issue of Black visibility and representation among the top ranks of Orange County government, notes county Supervisor Doug Chaffee’s chief of staff LaShe Rodriguez, who’s Afro-Latina.
Much of Rodriguez’ challenge, she says, is ensuring her community’s accounted for when weighing the effects of certain policy decisions, when almost all of Orange County’s elected government bodies are composed entirely of non-Black people.
Rodriguez said she frequently spots Black people out and about in Orange County, “but when I come to work, there are only a handful of Black employees in county government.”
Added Wianecki: “I think we’re shifting to a time where, as more people get involved in local politics, as Black visibility grows, the spotlight on how comfortable our local non-Black leaders are to speak on current Black issues grows in visibility as well.”
A community like Orange County refusing to see the issue, activists point out, has consequences.
City officials like Irvine Mayor Christina Shea and Garden Grove Planning Commissioner Josh Lindsay have prompted outrage and calls for their resignation over remarks they made dismissing the national and local protests, while demonstrations in their cities were underway.
And during a June 9 vote on a police brutality resolution statement, the county Board of Supervisors — none of whom are Black — wrestled with the difference between “Black” versus “African American” when discussing Black identity.
“At the dais, there were non-Black people discussing how Black people identify … it kind of plays into this fold of dictating to us how we should identify, how we should live our experience, instead of allowing us to lead the narrative,” Rodriguez said.
Even social justice movement organizations like Resilience OC and VietRISE are acknowledging their own roles in anti-Blackness, after participants in some of the groups’ past programs raised the issues and prompted public apologies from the organizations on social media earlier this month.
Understand that Black Americans have always been a presence, albeit a smaller one, in Orange County, said Kelsey Brewer, the first Black woman chair of the Orange County Young Democrats. “Anytime someone tells me Black people don’t have history in Orange County, I always ask: what history are you reading?”
There are a number of local Black-centered organizations that have existed for years and decades, like the local NAACP branch, OC Black Chamber of Commerce, National Council of Negro Women, and numerous Black Student Unions across the county’s high schools, community colleges, and universities. The OC Heritage Council has put on at least four decades’ worth of OC Black History Parades.
A small chapter of the Black Panthers worked out of Santa Ana up until the late 1960s, and dissolved following the killing of Santa Ana police officer Nelson Sasscer and the police department’s controversial ensuing investigation that focused on Black residents and community leaders at the time, according to OC Weekly. The Los Angeles Times back in 1970 noted a tanking in police relations with communities of color in wake of the department’s handling of the investigation.
The events are commemorated partly by the existence of Sasscer park — named after the dead officer — though activists know it better as “Black Panther Park,” where a vigil is scheduled for Friday featuring an appearance by former Black Panther Daniel Michael Lynem.
“Orange County has a history of assuming, because it doesn’t see the problem, that the problem doesn’t exist,” Brewer said. “This moment has peeled back the curtain and reminded us that all communities have the same parallels of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin …”
About a week after Brewer spoke to Voice of OC over the phone, Atlanta police shot and killed 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, a Black man, outside a Wendy’s restaurant in Georgia.
A New Orange County
The local demonstrations are reenergizing discussions around the concept of more visible, Black community centers in the county, which currently sees hubs for Latino, Arab and Asian American communities, among a large white population.
By the time the Black Panthers reached Santa Ana, there was already a hub of close-knit Black businesses and residences in the city, born out of real estate segregation. But after the passage of federal, anti-discrimination housing laws and success of local efforts to open up more housing in the rest of the county to Black Americans and people of color, that visible community in Santa Ana waned as the real estate barriers dissipated and folks branched out, the Times noted years later in 1994.
There’s currently some disconnect between Black residents in Orange County because “we’re largely separated,” said Wianecki.
But over the past week, Wianecki said the OC Protests Instagram page has already become not only a hub and center of community leaders and organizations — “but a hub for groups of Black organizers.”
“The word getting around of them coming together in our conversations is so amazing,” she added.
Wianecki said she’s lived in areas across the U.S. with more visible, connected Black communities. “I grew up half and half between St. Louis and SoCal, and I’ve seen what primarily Black neighborhoods look like, in a way we don’t have here.”
“Black people don’t have a physical space here in Orange County that we can take up together,” she said.
While there are local events that promote Black visibility like the annual OC Black History Parade, Wianecki said having a “permanent, physical Black community center — to allow Black people to join together and safely celebrate their Blackness with each other — would just be astounding.”
“It’s about rising to a greater level of visibility in open community spaces that we haven’t had before,” she added.
The concept isn’t a new one to Ferin Kidd, who for years has steered Black OC, an organization aimed at creating a network of Black-owned businesses and empowering the community, among other functions.
“Growing up Black in OC is a particularly unique experience, because you’re acutely aware that you’re Black by virtue of the fact that many people here are not,” he said.
By comparison, he said, there are other areas in the county that are immediately identifiable for their predominant racial population. In cities like Santa Ana and Anaheim, “the streets are full of Latino neighborhoods with commercial complexes of Latino-owned businesses.” In areas like San Clemente and Laguna, there “are strong predominant white communities with white businesses.” One can go to Garden Grove, Westminster, Buena Park and Fullerton “where you have significant Asian American communities.”
“But when people come and say, ‘where do I find Black culture in OC?’ There’s currently no permanent, physical area here dedicated to that,” Kidd said, adding that his group is currently in the process of looking at properties in the county to get started on what he envisions:
Commercial spaces displaying Black culture with successful Black businesses and, growing outward from that place of commerce, actual neighborhoods and residencies.
‘Where We Are Going — Not What Happens To Us’
“The idea that we’re being presented an opportunity to not only to create structural change in terms of policy, but also an opportunity to awaken a new generation of Black leaders in the arts, activism in general — the idea that maybe this is a thing that awakens everybody — is exciting,” Brewer said.
She envisioned a number of local civic areas where more Black leaders are needed in Orange County: “We are going to need them in housing, education, mental health…”
Brewer said, to her, a strong and visible Black community in Orange County “means Black joy and humanity and dreams and Black businesses being just as celebrated and supported as the movement right now in dealing with systematic oppression facing Black people for generations.”
“A bright and vibrant Black community is focused on where we are going — not what happens to us,” she added. “And that we are in the driver’s seat of what happens to our community.”
To Rodriguez, it means “having us represented more in ways such as, more Black-owned hair salons, shops and businesses throughout the county, proudly displayed, more Black teachers and visibility within our school districts.”
“One thing I’ve been pursuing is, how to get one nucleus, one directory of what everyone’s doing – I’m actually trying to organize a Black caucus in Orange County, and I think that’s one way where we can get more of that connectivity,” she said.
Natalie Martinez, an Afro-Dominican American senior at Garden Grove High School, helped lead a march of 3,000 young people throughout Garden Grove on June 3. On the day she spoke over the phone, she was weeks away from turning 18.
She said the recent string of protests and her role in Garden Grove’s demonstration has inspired her to become more involved in local government and social justice work, and that she plans on pivoting her career pursuits to becoming something like an attorney. “Someone who fights for justice, for my community.”
Martinez also has no plans to leave Orange County.
While she said some of her classmates who marched want to leave for other areas outside the county, she herself wants to stay where the local fight is. “The bigger issue is here.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.