It’s now been a full year since activist Tianna Arata was arrested by officers from the San Luis Obispo Police Department and became the face of the local Black Lives Matter movement.
A year since the young Black woman says she saw her life turn upside down.
Arata, now 21, helped lead many Black Lives Matter protests in San Luis Obispo before she was arrested on July 21, 2020, following a rally during which protesters marched onto Highway 101 and clashed with motorists.
Her life changed dramatically at that moment.
After her arrest, “I immediately had to flee my house and my home,” Arata said. “I was just homeless after that.”
Arata said she was thrown into a depressive episode. That, coupled with the intense stress she experienced as the ensuing court case caught the attention of national news outlets, caused her to lose her grounding.
“I was going through portions of my life, especially over the last winter, where I was feeling like I was laying down and dying because I was just so unstable,” Arata said. “There were a lot of times where I would lose motivation — I wouldn’t want to go to school or I wouldn’t want to get up. I wasn’t eating. I was super pale and super skinny.”
Arata said she now is “rebuilding” her life in Southern California as her case works its way through the court system. She faces 13 misdemeanors related to the July 21 protest — including counts of false imprisonment, obstructing a public thoroughfare and resisting arrest.
Six other local Black Lives Matter activists are also facing criminal charges related to the July 21 protest.
Whether those cases will continue to be prosecuted by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office remains to be determined by the state appellate court, which is currently reviewing a local judge’s decision to disqualify the office from the cases on the basis of bias.
Arata is represented by local criminal defense attorney Patrick Fisher and Curtis Briggs, a civil rights and trial attorney based out of San Francisco.
“What (the case against Arata) represents is a check on the power that law enforcement has,” Fisher said. “And I’m not just talking about police officers, also including the District Attorney’s Office.”
Tianna Arata arrested following SLO protest
On July 21, 2020, hundreds of people gathered in Mitchell Park near downtown San Luis Obispo around 4:30 p.m. for a planned Black Lives Matter protest.
The protest came after a video surfaced of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson speaking at a meeting of the North San Luis Obispo County Tea Party.
“When are we going to stop this? When are we going to stop letting people take over neighborhoods and communities?” Parkinson says in the video, referring to nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
Parkinson said “there is no endgame” to the protests and “no purpose, other than destruction.”
At about 5:15 p.m., protesters began marching along the streets in downtown San Luis Obispo for about an hour before walking onto both lanes of Highway 101 near the Santa Rosa Street exit.
They occupied the highway for more than half an hour as tensions rose between protesters and drivers who were stuck during their commute. At one point, the rear window of a sedan was smashed, and the car drove through a few protesters, hitting one, before speeding away.
About 45 minutes after marching onto the highway, the protesters marched off via the California Avenue exit and returned to Mitchell Park about a half hour later, around 7:45 p.m.
When the sun had nearly fully set and most of the activists had gone home, several San Luis Obispo police officers rushed Arata as she was packing up her car near the intersection of Buchon and Osos streets and took her into custody.
Case attracts national attention
Although the police originally booked Arata into San Luis Obispo County Jail on suspicion of five criminal misdemeanor charges, police later asked county prosecutors to charge her with five felonies and three misdemeanors.
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office is now pursuing 13 misdemeanor charges against Arata — including counts of false imprisonment, obstructing a public thoroughfare and resisting arrest.
Prosecutors allege the protesters, led by Arata, held residents “hostage” on the highway and elsewhere around the downtown area during their demonstration.
Another protester, Elias Bautista, was captured on video kicking an officer in the groin during the July 21 protest before being chased down by police and subsequently arrested. Bautista faces one felony and two misdemeanor charges.
Five other local protesters — including Sam Grocott, the man hit by the car during the July 21 protest — were arrested shortly after Arata and Bautista on various criminal charges related to the protests.
Arata’s case has captured the attention of numerous publications, ranging from the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek to Teen Vogue, and inspired a social media campaign featuring the hashtag #FreeTianna, which briefly trended on Twitter.
The #FreeTianna Coalition also circulated a petition demanding the county District Attorney’s Office drop the charges against Arata. The petition, which was delivered in September but ultimately rejected, gathered more than 544,000 signatures from people around the nation.
In August, Arata appeared on ABC News Live to talk about the criminal charges filed against her. In March 2021, she appeared on ABC’s “Soul of a Nation,” but didn’t mention the case.
Black Lives Matter activist deals with couch surfing, mental health issues
After Arata’s arrest, escalating threats from community members caused her and her mom, Michelle, to flee their home in San Luis Obispo — the first house Arata had ever lived in. They spent the next five months sleeping on friends’ couches along the California coast.
“It was really hurtful because during that I was really longing for a sense of belonging again,” explained Tianna Arata, who said she grew up “way below” the federal poverty line and had to move around whenever rent money ran out.
“Everything that I knew was taken from me,” she said.
As scrutiny of her case intensified, Arata said her mental health started to deteriorate.
“There were times where I was really giving up on myself with the stress of not having somewhere to lay my head,” she said. “And on top of that, constantly being worried about this case and what the next steps are.”
Arata said she doesn’t “look like Tianna” in the photos taken of herself over the past winter. They show the track athlete looking skinny, pale and just “downright unhealthy,” she said.
Arata said her mom was a driving force for the recovery of her mental health — encouraging her daughter to get out of bed and go on walks outside.
In December, Arata and her mom found a one-bedroom apartment in Southern California. (They don’t want to disclose a precise location due to safety reasons.)
Arata said her new surroundings are a lot different than San Luis Obispo.
For one, she doesn’t feel like the only Black woman there.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” she said. “Living in SLO, I was just surviving. Now I’m living.”
Arata has taken a break from school to refocus, she said, but she plans to attend a Southern California university or college soon to study Pan-African studies.
She’s been working on finding out what’s next for her between running track, modeling, learning how to do nail art and meeting new people in her new city.
Case underway in San Luis Obispo Superior Court
According to one of her attorneys, Arata has shown perseverance and strength over a challenging year.
“She’s had to deal with so much: Death threats, all sorts of racial slurs, attempts to intimidate her, all sorts of scrutiny that none of us would ever invite. And she knows that she’s subjecting herself to it,” Fisher said. “It’s not to say it hasn’t been extremely difficult for her at times, but it’s just a testament to her strength. She just keeps powering through — she doesn’t back down.”
“We use her as an example to my kids,” he said. “This is an example of somebody who knows what they believe and is willing to take risks to stand out for it. I should hope that my kids take just a little bit of that into their adulthood.”
Fisher said the San Luis Obispo Superior Court case has weighed on Arata, but she’s been a big reason why her attorneys haven’t taken a more passive approach.
He said the case rests in the hands of the state attorney general, who is currently reviewing an appeal from San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow on his office’s disqualification from the case on what the judge called “a clear conflict.”
Days after his office filed charges against Arata, Dow’s wife sent an email paid for by his reelection campaign that asked for donations and claimed the district attorney was “leading the fight” against the “wacky defund the police” and social justice movement.
“(The email) established a clear conflict of interest,” San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Matthew Guerrero said in December. “(By) delivering this fundraising email to potentially tens of thousands of people immediately after filing the charges, Mr. Dow sought political and professional benefit and campaign contributions in conjunction with the prosecution of the above-entitled cases.”
Dow said in a statement released shortly after Guerrero’s ruling that he “respectfully and strongly” disagrees with Guerrero’s findings.
“There is absolutely no conflict in this case,” Dow said in the statement.
Fisher said he’s confident the state attorney general will agree with Guerrero’s ruling.
Should that happen, “the attorney general would have to take over the prosecution,” Fisher said. “I don’t know what they’ll do. Up to this point, their position has been kind of a hot potato approach. They just don’t want the case. … Maybe I should take that as a good sign. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Arata is set to appear next in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Aug. 27.
Woman takes new approach to activism
Arata said she’s now taking a new approach to activism, one that she says works better for her.
She said she’s worked with community organizations in the city where she’s living to raise money for people in need to pay for groceries, medical bills and other expenses.
“At the end of the day, I don’t believe in working inside the system,” Arata said. “The community members are realizing, like, ‘OK, we’re gonna have to work in our own circles.’ ”
Arata hasn’t stopped paying attention to what is happening in San Luis Obispo, though, she said.
She’s not surprised that the San Luis Obispo Police Department and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office saw budget increases in the wake of last summer’s protests, but said it’s still “a slap in the face.”
“Now I have to focus on how can I be sustainable? How can I be monumental in similar ways, but also protect myself?” Arata asked. “A lot of people (got burned out) after last summer. It’s why the numbers have dwindled; everybody’s facing burnout and people are just so tired.”
“I’ve gotten this question a lot recently: What are your next steps with organizing and activism? And, honestly, only time will tell,” she said. “I know that I want to be self-employed and build my own business. I want to elevate Black people and build generational wealth for Black people.”
Credit: Source link