Charles Brown on Protest Organizing + BLM + Police Reform

In June, a friend invited me to a San Diego protest supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. With only a 24 hour notice, I made the split decision to go, which meant waking up at a crisp 7 am and driving downtown to the San Diego Country Administration Building to join the protestors.

The prior week, a San Diego protest had resulted in tear gas and outrage. But as I walked along San Diego’s Waterfront and towards the protest’s congregation point, the protest held no sentiments of violence or disarray. Instead, there was a sea of colors: Pride flags; Mexican, Chinese, and Irish flags; Black Panther flags, California state flags, and peace sign flags. This diversity in flags was reflected in the diversity of attendees — it felt as though the entire world was present.

Both the energy and turn out of this protest symbolize the love and diversity within the San Diego community; it also speaks to the efforts of its organizers: Charles Brown and his husband, Kelly Todd Pierce.

Currently the VP of a non-profit, Charles is no stranger to advocacy work, but organizing this protest was a unique experience for him. In front of 10,400 people, Charles delivered the protest’s opening and closing speeches. During the opening speeches, his words brought me to tears; during the closing speech, the protest brought Charles to tears.

“When we got to the end, the protest was so peaceful that when watching everyone kneel, you could hear a pin drop. That is why I broke down [into tears] because that was when it hit me: I was watching something special. That second speech, it was unscripted; it came straight from the heart.”

a man speaking into the microphone
Charles at the protest

How did you feel while you were making that second speech at the protest?

“There was so much emotion that can over me because that protest was put together in 4 days. We worked from Tuesday to Friday, and the protest happened on Saturday. By Wednesday, I had received 3 death threats. There was also a lot of hatred from the other BLM movements that were happening on that same day [because of perceived] competition between the protest organizers.

“This, combined with the death threats, motivated me to work with the police. I was afraid.

“I had a detective assigned to me and a couple of undercovers because these death threats were real. One of the threats was from a White Supremacist’s page and the others were from two individuals. The police were monitoring their social media networks to ensure not just my safety but the safety of the protestors as well.

“In the end, I could not believe that it all came together in such a short amount of time. There were 100s of volunteers, as well, with teams from SDSU and from UCSD calling me up the night before the protest and saying, ‘Hey, how can we help?’. With less than a 24-hour notice, these volunteers showed up early Saturday morning and ready to work. Various members of the community donated in-kind support: Rich’s Dance Club donated the stage and sound system used during the opening and closing speeches, in addition to $500.00 of bottled water; Classy donated over 100 nutrition bags; Smash Tech donated several hundred bags of snacks and bottled water. Companies want to help, but they often do not know how to help and where to donate.

“I think that the march’s heavy social media influence made it was easier for people to connect to and support the protest. Afterward, I tried to respond to every single message on the Facebook page — even in my private messenger, I had 100s of messages. I felt I had an obligation to respond to each one of these messages to show how much I appreciated everyone’s support in ensuring the march’s success.

“It was all this emotion — the surrealness of how this all came together — that I felt at the end of the protest. It was not just the support for the BLM movement, but the support of equality in general that I found so powerful. I think San Diego is very fortunate.

“Also, a week before this protest was the tear gas protest, where people were hit with pellets in downtown San Diego. That prior protest was on my mind, as well.

“The magnitude and reality of this protest hit me Saturday morning. As I was walking towards the San Diego Country Administration Building [where the protest was congregating], I got a text that the National Guard was standing on the outskirts of the protest. And as I walked towards the protest on that morning, I saw a line of 50+ motorcycle polices along with the National Guard. I fully stop in my tracks, and it was at that moment that I realized that I had to be comfortable with getting tear gas, getting arrested, or getting hurt. And when I saw all the people, I realized that people could get COVID because of something I was organizing.

“I did have a medical team on hand, with people staffed on corners handing out disposable masks. Regardless, 99% of people showed up prepared. I followed up with the San Diego trace department, and 0 cases of COVID were reported during the time of my march and one month out since the protest. That was something I was happy to hear.

two people walking to a blm protest

How do you feel about the march now that several months have passed?

“There are so many things I would have done differently. I want to become more active with the BLM movement here. There is not a San Diego BLM chapter, but we do have an offshoot chapter. Additionally, I am currently working with the San Diego Lesbian and Gay Black coalition to see how I can help with advocacy in some way [and partner together in future protests].”

There were also logistic problems with the march, as the march only went one direction, and this created problems for the thousands of people who needed to return to their cars at the end of the march. Here, the police department allowed street closures and motorcycle transportation for people who needed to get back to the protest’s starting point. Next time, Charles is looking to make his marches round trip rather than one way.

Another regret Charles cited was not utilizing volunteers more.

“It takes a lot to put on a protest, and while our First Amendment allows us to assemble anywhere without speakers, [traffic controller], volunteers, or medics…. I wanted to ensure that I was responsible for everyone’s safety. The police equally stated that we have this right to assemble wherever we like, but they wanted to help with traffic flow to ensure everyone’s safety.

There are a lot of logistical concerns, especially for the organizer, because you take on the role of the safety director. You are responsible for [the safety of everyone] that is attending to ensure that they are not in harm’s way. I wish I had enlisted the help of more volunteers because it was just me and my husband organizing everything. If it were not for those two universities contacting us the night before, I do not know how we would have been able to pull this off.”

a man wearing a suit and smiling

What catalyzed you to get involved with activism in the first place?

“In the late 90’s I was pulled over on the highway. The truck I was driving at the time did not go over 60 MPH, so I knew I was not speeding. My interaction with the police was very negative. I was asked to put my hands on the steering wheel; I was asked to step out in the pouring rain; I was put on the side of the curb and handcuffed; and when I stood up and tried to ask why I was getting arrested, I was yelled at and told to sit back down. As with anyone who is being handcuffed and doesn’t know the reason why — with no one giving you any sort of answer — you get upset, and you start to scream, ‘What did I do, what did I do?’

“I get upset even now when I see this happen on TV and people say, ‘Well, just comply, just comply!’. Well, you comply, and you still do not get answers. They are doing their investigation, sure, but to the person who is in handcuffs sitting on the curb in the pouring rain, there is only confusion.

“I think my situation should have been dealt with with a bit more human kindness. Long story short, I was told that I ‘looked like the guy’ that they were looking for, and I was driving a vehicle similar to the one that the suspect was supposedly driving. I was let go with no apology, and my car was completely ransacked. After I was released, I did not know my rights; I did not know that I could have called the police department to file a formal complaint against that interaction.

“A couple of years later I was pulled over, again, for ‘looking like the person’ who had supposedly done something wrong. But cellphones had just come out, and I had a flip-phone this time, which the officers dismantled. They were looking for drugs. Again, that encounter was very negative.

“Later in the 2000s, my husband and I were looking to relocate to Charleston, South Carolina. While visiting, I was denied the use of a restroom in, not one, but two places; it was old school racism straight to my face.

“So when the George Floyd incidence happened, and my husband and I heard all the protests and the sirens [from our place in Little Italy], all these emotions resurfaced of what I had gone through. I had a friend tell me, very seriously, that all it would have taken was for one dirty cop to throw a bag of drugs into my car when I was on the side of the road and they could say, ‘Oh, we found it.’ And you can only respond, ‘It’s not mine, it’s not mine’, like I am sure everyone says, and my life would have been ruined. So I completely have empathy for anyone who has negative encounters [with the police].

“What I went through within my police encounters was very different from what my husband experiences when he gets pulled over. When I am pulled over, I immediately put my hands out the window or on the steering wheel because I feel I have to. And this is why we are protesting so that everyone can be on a level playing field [and experience fair, humane interactions with the people who should be ensuring everyone’s safety].

“Not every black person is a criminal, just like not every cop is a bad cop.

“This is why Part 2 of the movement is to start conversations. We must come to some sort of national criteria for de-escalation techniques, or [encourage and train a] sense of compassion and fairness. We must be better communicators when an officer believes they have someone that may have broken the law. There must be full transparency as to why someone is being pulled over or detained in the first place. These conversations need to be ongoing to create equality and fairness.

a protest line

How do you see police reform taking shape in San Diego?

“I was happy to see that the San Diego Mayor [Kevin Faulconer] and Chief of Police [David Nisleit] immediately drafted outlines for police reform. But I had to stop and think, do we think that those two are the right ones to put together such a plan when before George Floyd these two men thought their procedures were gold.

“I did send an email to the council president and I said that while I thought it was great that these two men met and are drafting outlines for police reform, are they the right people to be making these reforms? Should they be the only people in that meeting?

“My thought process is to get the community involved in some way, and I would love to do an open Zoom meeting that is heavily socially influenced and ask questions like:

“‘What, as citizens and taxpayers, is your number 1 concern. Is it homelessness, is it police reform, is it ensuring that there is a sense of equity to distance learning, especially for those who need that extra attention?’

“Whatever the issue is, let’s get together a top ten list of concerns. Then, we can go to the city council community and say:

“‘We have talked to the people in the community and this is what they say their issues are. What say you?’

“Then get the council’s answers to the top ten issues, and maybe narrow it down to the top 3, and then met with the mayor and chief of police and say:

“‘Here are the top three, what say you?’

“And now we can start conversations and get a task force together to address these issues. I think protests are great, but they cannot just end there. There has to be the next step and there has to be a sense of accountability as to why we are protesting.”

How do you feel about the ‘Defund the Police’ movement?

“I am not a fan of the branding of ‘Defund the Police’. I think it has a very negative connotation. The first two letters, ‘D-E’, are negative in their own right, but let’s change that and talk about re-imagining public spaces. I think if we put a positive spin on it, it changes the conversation. Essentially, this is the same thing. Do you want to defund the police? Okay, so that money will be invested in the next item on the agenda. Then what? We can move money down the line, but then what?

“Well, let’s re-image public safety.

“I think it is how you phrase things will open more conversations up in a positive way. No one wants to feel that their job is being attacked or that their job is on the line. I think that if we spin it differently, we can open up more conversations.”

a woman holidng a blm sign
The beginning ceremony

How do you feel about the current attitudes towards the police?

People have a right to be upset with the police department. There was a report done on the police force in the San Diego area in 2018 that showed people in Hillcrest being pulled over at a higher rate than people in Gaslamp [the wealthy, central downtown location]. When I say pulled over, I mean being detained or arrested. And when you look at those demographics more closely, there is a higher percentage of African Americans that are either detained or arrested in Hillcrest than of those in the Gaslamp.

“So I think that this report is very telling of what happens after hours or in the early morning hours when the people are the most vulnerable to have interaction with the police department. Also, why are the numbers that way? San Diego has a very low percentage of African Americans in comparison to other races, but still, they are the highest percentage of detainees and arrests by the police force. Literally, 1 in 3 African Americans in San Diego will be detained or arrested. That is mind-blowing to me. And there needs to be some sense of accountability, there needs to be discussion [about these discrepancies].

“People do have a right to have this fear, and I think that these are uncomfortable conversations, but it becomes more uncomfortable when you have old white men trying to discuss what people of color are feeling. I think the wrong people are at the table when we talk about reform or when we start conversations about re-imaging public safety. I would like to invite other people of color to have a seat at the table. I think all we want is a sense of transparency. AndI think that by shedding some light on what happens behind these closed doors, people can walk away from these conversations to defend and understand the changes that are taking place.

“I think people are going to continue to have these feelings of fear and anger towards the people that were hired to protect us. At the march, I recited the police officer’s creed; this creed is either old, outdated, or flat out ignored because what they actually swear to is not what they do on a daily basis when they are out on the field.”

What is the Police Officer’s Creed?

As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property, to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the Constitutional rights of all men to liberty, equality, and justice.

‘I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all, maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop self‐restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department. Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided to me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary for the performance of my duty.

‘I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities, or friendships to influence my decisions. With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities.

‘I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service. I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself to my chosen profession… law enforcement.’

I find a parallel between the police officer’s creed and the Hippocratic oath, as both are oaths that highlight a golden standard.

Maybe it is not the sworn oaths or the positions, but the practices of the people who fill these roles of doctors and police officers within our societies that need to be reformed and reimagined?

“It is the air of secrecy in these professions, in which we can only speculate as to what is happening behind closed doors. Sometimes you just need to give ordinary people the invitation to see the dynamics behind the scenes and to see democracy in practice so that they can be the communicator [about change and policies] to the community.

“As a rebuttal, people like to say that you can email the police department or the city council with your ideas. That, to me, is different. I really doubt if you send an email through the .gov website that the Mayor of San Diego is actually reading all those emails. If that happens, then that is great, but I would highly doubt that this is the case. It probably gets funneled down and responded to by someone who works for him.”

two black men on the street

Who is missing from these reform conversations, in your opinion?

“In general, the Trans community feels that they have to be underground and hidden because they are murdered, murdered, at such a high rate. So we have to find some way to ‘catch’ the San Diego trans community in these reform discussions. I spoke to two trans people within the San Diego community who have gotten pretty badly beaten up — one still goes to therapy, by the way. In both cases, when the police came [to the scene of their attacks], both these trans people felt discounted and were treated with disgusts. They had to follow through on their own case reports and find out if their attackers were caught, [or if officers were even looking for their attackers]. This is an uncomfortable conversation to have with the police department because the department probably does not want to have to deal with this trans community.”

How do you interact with police officers in your daily life?

“I run 6–8 miles every morning, and one day last week there were 6 to 8 police cars at the Midway Park. Typically, I do sprints at this park, but when I saw the police officers at the park, I immediately stopped, turned around, and headed to a different park. I thought to myself:

“‘Why did I just do that? I am just a regular citizen getting my morning exercise, I am not bothering or hurting anyone.’

“But I when see a group of policemen, all of a sudden I have the instinct to change my routine. It is because of a feeling I get when I see the police. And it is this feeling that we need to combat, whether you are trans or a person of color, you have this feeling because of the previous [and often negative] interactions you have had with the police.

“That feeling is a lack of trust, and that is the conversation that needs to be had. How do people of color gain back trust for the people who were hired to protect us?”

a blm protest
As a woman, that is how I feel every time I see a man when I am walking at night, and I always act out of self-protection by either crossing the street, turning around, or literally running away.

Do you think there is a compromise that can be had between someone protecting their own personal safety and a community member trying to implement social change in their daily (re)actions?

“I certainly hope so. I lived in Austin for 10 years, and I remember during the Iraq war, gas prices went through the roof. I served on a committee in Austin at the time, and someone had the brilliant idea of putting police officers on horseback throughout the community to cut down on gas prices. That was not rocket science but it was a brilliant idea. Officers did not need their cars this way, [therefore they did not require gas]. People love horses, so the community engagement shot up and people came up to the officers asking to pet the horses, to take photos, and so forth. It opened up a whole new line of communication that would not have happened otherwise if the officers were in a car. Even as gas prices decreased, the Austin police force remained on horseback, [even to this day].

“I say this because maybe someone in this community has a brilliant idea that no one is thinking about that can help us rebuild trust. I think when police officers are seen in a nonthreatening manner, they can build a better sense of alignment with the community they serve. Like at the protest, I saw a lot of people hugging and taking pictures with the police officers. The protest was very peaceful, which is why this can happen. But if it is 1 in the morning, and a trans person is walking down the street, are they going to walk up and give the police officer a hug? No.

“Somewhere along the line, the dots are not connecting [as we work to build trust and communication], and that is what needs to be addressed.”

So, you are advocating that, through engagement and conversation, we can break down these physical and metaphorical walls to create more understanding amongst groups.

Do you think understanding is the crux of this reform?

“I do not know if it is the crux, but I certainly think it is the start. And maybe the police officers need to come and be part of these Zoom meetings with the black coalition. Or maybe police officers need to have a representative to sit at the local chapter of the NAACP [National Association of the Advancement of Colored People]. I think visibility is key. Once you get a group to trust you and even endorse you, then we can regain trust. If the NAACP came out and said, ‘All is good with the San Diego Police Department’, I think that would go a long way. The San Diego Police Department has their own share of issues, but once they iron out those issues and San Diego Pride re-endorses the San Diego Police Department, then that will reestablish trust.”

How can do Police Unions, which often allow bad actors in the police force to keep their jobs, inhibit the re-establishing of trust between these groups?

“Let’s use George Floyd as an example, all those other police officers just sat around and watched him get murdered right in front of the world’s eyes. No one intervened to stop that. Why is that? How did that happen?

“You can look at the latest incident in Rochester where you have a nude black man [having a mental health episode,] lying in the middle of the street, [and eventually dying from a police officer’s use of excessive force. This was at the hands of one of the seven police officers who were present at the scene of the crime]. No one intervened or offered another way to de-escalate the problem.

“In both of these situations, you have the options of de-escalation and intervention, [the latter I consider a civic duty]. Police unions are strong, so perhaps bringing in a police union member into these reform conversations is needed, because police officers also have rights. There is no use trying to disparage or take these rights away from them, but then again the union cannot always protect someone when they are wrong. So maybe they need to have a seat at the table and say something like:

“‘In our labor practices, if someone sees an officer that could be suspected of doing something that is not right, then what is the policy of intervention by another officer?’

“That is another conversation that needs to be had.”

a man in a blue shirt at a blm protest
It is not just the relationship that African Americans have with the police, but it is the relationships that the police officers, unions, and departments have amongst each other that need to be addressed.

With that said, there are good police officers and bad police officers, so why are the good officers not mitigating the bad actors, and why are the bad actors allowed to stick around?

“Exactly, or — and this is something the police unions can look into as an option — — if someone has 20 years of experience, give them the golden handshake and let them retire early. Or, if they are new on the force and intervention and street beat are not their scene, maybe they can be reassigned as a booker or a crime photographer, so they do not have to work on the streets and be held accountable to the things that happen on a day to day basis.”

How do you feel about generational racism, where people in their 80s are given a pass on being racist because it is assumed that an older person cannot change?

“So, my husband’s grandmother said at one point:

“‘Oh, where did your little colored friend go?’

“And my husband had to say:

“‘Grandma, we don’t use that term anymore, and his name is Charles.’

“I think that there are a lot of things that were said in the ’60s and earlier that were random conservatory words, and elderly people have grown accustomed to using such phrases or words. Someone said the term ‘cotton picker’ to me a few days ago, which was something I had not heard in years because people just don’t say it anymore.”

Sliding down from an 80-year-old to a 60-year-old, someone closer to 60 can feasibly still be in the workforce, yet they may retain this outdated, racist commentary or speech. How would you like such a person to be dealt with in the future as we work to eradicate racism?

“That’s an education issue, [that person just needs help aligning their speech] to what is politically correct these days. I would not go so far as to say that person is a racist, but the phrasing needs to be dealt with. At my job, we are a very diverse and inclusive company. We have a trans person on staff, and as she started getting further along in the process — she was hired as a ‘he’ initially — and as her voice started changing and she started becoming a she, our pronouns were getting very confused just through normal conversations. I would call her a ‘him’, and so forth, on accident. Pronouns have become paramount within our modern social climate, and I told my team that I want people to put their pronouns on their email tags, just so when we speak in pronoun terms, we get it correct. And it is hard, this transition. It is natural that sometimes we are going to slip up and use the wrong pronoun. Are we insensitive? Absolutely not, it just takes time and education to get it right.

How do you feel about the disconnect between loving black culture and supporting Black Lives Matter?

“For me, the Black Lives Matter movement is important because it is bringing attention to something that shouldn’t even have to happen. I would hate to think that it is becoming a cultural discussion topic point, but in essence, it is. This is great because it is bringing together all that is great within black culture, be it music, fashion, poetry, jazz, or rap.

“Those are all the positive things, but there is this element of equality that also needs to happen, and that takes the front seat. I should have the same feeling that you have when you get pulled over by the police. In my mind, this is what this movement is calling for — it should be a standardized process and not:

“‘Stick your hands out the window!’

“‘You look like the guy.’

“I think this movement is calling for [us all to have a greater] sense of humanity and compassion. To be a police officer is to serve and protect, and looking at those words, [we must ask]: who are you serving, and who are you protecting?

Additionally, there needs to be an element of communication and training on how to approach someone who you suspect of being a criminal. I think it is both training and educating that need to be discussed when we talk about the BLM movement and culture.”

people holding up signs at a protest

Where do you see the Black Lives Matter movement going?

“I would love to see the movement take an upward spiral into the political arena because whether we want to agree with this or not, it is political. When you look at the preamble of the United States constitution, it says:

“‘We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’

“I think our founding fathers got it right by putting all the right words into place, just like the police officers creed, but we [are certainly not referring to that preamble on a daily basis].

“Breanna Taylor’s killer is still out there and has not been brought to justice — we are going on 2 and a half months. And that is why the Black Lives Matter movement exists so that people do not forget. Just because time has passed and just because no one is saying her name does not mean that the family has received justice. The movement has to continue forward so that we keep their names in the spotlight. Tamir Rice’s killer is still out there, [and so are the several other killers who are responsible for the deaths of black men and women]. We have to do better at keeping pressure on the local government so that these people and these families can get some sense of justice and resolve.”

black man looking into the camera in a black and white photo

What do you find beautiful about the Black Lives Matter movement?

“I have received over 5,000 photos via my email from the protest. I have started turning this into a movie, and I go through these photos when I want to remember that beautiful day. That protest brought out all nationalities, all ages, everything — it was so lovely to watch and to see people that are so passionate about a movement that, quite honestly, does not really affect or impact them. These people want to be a part of something not just because it is current but because, if you are human, these injustices will affect you and touch your heart. If you are human, you cannot watch someone murdered before your eyes and not feel some sort of compassion or empathy. What this movement did was that it brought out people from everywhere to have a voice in something that is very powerful. I am going to release this video that I am curating so that we can all see the power and beauty that came from just 4 days of planning.”

I was incredibly touched by the diversity of the protest, and its singular focus…

“My neighbor said it best, she said she watched the march from the balcony of our condo building, and she said:

“‘I am a lifelong Republican, and when this march passed my apartment balcony, there was one word that came to mind. Love. This march had nothing but love. How can I stand on a side that doesn’t feel like what I just felt when this movement went passed me?’

“We then talked for over an hour, and we have become really good friends since then. If this march can change just one person’s mindset, not just about BLM, but about equality in general, then it is worth it. And what is equality? It is being equal. I want to be equal to you. It is not a status thing — this is not about who earns the most or drives the better car — it is about how we treat people that are human.

“My mother always told us, and I am the youngest of 5:

“‘I do not care who you love or how you love, my only wish for you is that you love.’

“And how beautiful is that, that as early as I can remember, my mother would tell us this as we grew up. And she still says these words to us on every holiday. It is something so small, but if everyone can live by that same mantra, I think we would be living in a much better world.

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