In the wake of Tyre Nichol’s death on Jan. 10 at the hands of Memphis police officers, the violence caught on video hit home in the Hayward community with residents.
The Bay Area is a culturally rich place to live, and Hayward is no exception. With such a diverse population, it is no surprise that such a violent public death for yet another person of color is beyond disturbing and evokes strong emotions in the community. This type of sentiment motivates the need for change, and the best place for this to start is by listening directly to the voices of the communities affected by the policies that govern the police.
Discussion and engagement can bring people together, which is precisely what transpired within an organization known as People of Change (POC). On Feb. 1, a vigil was held outside the Hayward City Hall at 5 p.m. in response to police violence and the killing of Tyre Nichols. The night was cold, but that didn’t stop some residents from coming out to convene and express how upset they were to see yet another person of color killed by police in the news.
The vigil was hosted by Amelia Bonilla, Jordan Leopold, and Leonardo Nicolas Huerta. Jordan opened the night and gave a heartfelt speech on race relations and policing in our local Bay Area communities, particularly Hayward. Although some of the members had impassioned speeches to provide, the event was purposed to be an open mic night, and it was indeed.
“No justice, no peace,” the crowd chanted, a familiar rallying cry for social justice warriors as they listened to Jordan speak about the tragedy of the loss of Tyre Nichols. “This is a national problem,” he proclaimed and noticed how many others have experienced this execution style of force used most often on people of color. Some of the more known recent names are Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. The feelings of anger and sadness come to the surface yet again as it is expressed with deep emotion, wondering, “when will the discrimination and killings at the hands of police end?” Said Jordan.
Jordan also mentioned a lack of training and de-escalation practices; in its place, police are just shooting people of color who are viewed as a threat or physically beating them to death. The data for this misconduct should be public. Still, the organization believes, along with many other community members, that the facts and numbers behind this data are withheld from the public view. The consequences for police officers involved in misconduct are disciplined and retrained in-house with unreleased data; that is a fact. This procedure is standard within a department to investigate internally but keep what happens as a result off the public record.
How can there be accountability and trust in a community if there is no feedback after people in the community report police misconduct? These people who are victimized in one way or another by private citizens or police officers treat people like the enemy or criminals depending on which neighborhood they live in and their socioeconomic standing. Why do people of color face roadblocks to obtaining equality in the justice system?
The sentiment was that of frustration, stating openly within the crowd’s feedback to Jordan “that they were tired of hearing about people of color being killed like this.”
A Black mother from the Hayward community took the stage after Jordan and gave a very emotional speech about the danger she and her children were facing every day. How worried she was about the future lives of her children, ages six and seven. She was very upset about needing to have “the conversation” with them about the dangers of police and why we deserve to live. The fact that simply wearing a hoodie could mean death for them as Black children living in the Bay Area brought this mother to tears on stage. “We must demand change for our kids, or they will pay the price. Our babies don’t feel seen or heard; how can we make people care about Black lives and be seen as human beings,” She proclaimed.
Several more community members took the stage and, in one form or another, expressed the same distrust, frustration, and anger toward the police. Latino members of the community joined with Black residents and together shared the problems that face Black and Brown people. “Staying silent is not an option,” one community member exclaimed and mentioned in particular “the stereotypes used to discriminate against Latinos such as viewing them as lowriders and cholo gang members.”
This discrimination is universal as there are many cases over the decades of discrimination in the Latino community at the hands of police dating back much further than the 1930s. Still, it was these years that led up to a famous event. During the 1930s, dance halls were trendy, swing dancing and releasing some of the economic stress felt during the Great Depression.
In a New York neighborhood of Harlem famous for the Harlem Renaissance. The violent clashes of the Zoot Suit Riots, where mobs of U.S. servicemen, off-duty police officers, and civilians brawled with young Latinos and African Americans in Los Angeles. The June 1943 riots got their name from the baggy suits worn by minority youths during that era. Still, the violence was more about racial discrimination and not about conflict over fashion.
The vigil lasted about an hour or so, and afterward, residents came together and embraced each other, although some were meeting for the first time. The feeling of caring and concern about the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis was felt all the way over here in Hayward, 2,069 miles away. These killings happen far too often to people of color across the United States.
Hayward police are not exclusive, sharing in the disenfranchisement of people of color and sometimes providing unequal justice. It was on this night that residents of Hayward felt they could keep their silence about Tyre’s death no more and vowed to bring change, starting with their local police department.
To the right of the stage, there was an elegant memorial display of remembrance set up for Tyre Nichols, along with food items and informative handouts for the community members in attendance. Although the night was cold and attendance was not as good as it could have been, improving the weather will bring out more community members looking to get involved and create change. These residents didn’t take notice because they were there to break their silence. The passion that drove this event is a response to police violence, and unfortunately, this violence will most likely continue well into the future.
How did POC begin, and what is it all about?
In May 2020, in response to the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, a group of people came together to discuss social media. A discussion was born from participating in protests with the Hayward Community Coalition (HAYCOCOA). A discussion group on Instagram was started for this purpose, to have engagement about the topic of police brutality.
“We drew inspiration and thought we’d do better as a collective. We didn’t know what would happen, just that we wanted to bring people together to form a discussion. To help unite and inspire the black and brown community for social and economic prosperity. We felt that we needed to take a stance on police accountability,” said Jordan Leopold, POC Organizer.
The discussion went well, and they moved forward with a history post about the City of Yanga, which was founded after a group of enslaved Africans, led by Gaspar Yanga, rebelled against colonial rule in 1570. Veracruz, enslaved Africans lived under strict laws in New Spain’s royal system. Africans who were able to liberate themselves could expect the following:
“…the Negro or Negro woman absent from the service of his or her master for four days shall suffer fifty lashes of the whip… and if they should be away more than eight days, for a distance exceeding one league, each of them shall suffer a hundred lashes, iron fetters weighing twelve pounds shall be tied to their feet with a rope, which they shall carry for two months and shall not take off under pain of two hundred lashes for the first offense; and for the second, each shall take two hundred lashes and shall not take the weights off for four months,” William H. Dusenbarry Historian.
Yanga would be one of many enslaved Africans to rebel against the slave system. Yanga’s rebellion was a combination of several hundred enslaved Africans who fled to seek shelter near the Veracruz mountains—going from Cofre de Perote to the Sierra de Zongolica mountains. The rebels established a small town where they could live on their own. For 30 years, the Yanguícos harvested their foods (sweet potatoes, sugar cane, tobacco, corn, and many others). They used machetes and sticks for the raiding of supplies from passing Spanish caravans.
Locals would transport goods in caravans that traveled from the Veracruz port to Mexico City, MX. But as African and Indigenous people fled slavery and sought refuge in the surrounding mountains, they took to raiding caravans regularly. These Yanguicos were a threat to the colonial order. In 1609, when a rumor started circulating that the Yanguícos were planning to overthrow local Spanish authorities in the neighboring towns and appoint Yanga as the king, the Spanish Crown’s Viceroy Luis de Velasco sent a battalion of a few hundred troops to kill them. The Yanguícos and the Spanish suffered numerous casualties during their battles, but Yanga would not be defeated. Yanga ultimately negotiated a ceasefire: the Spanish Crown consented to a treaty that, in 1618, allowed the Yanguícos to establish their government and live in peace.
Yanga serves as an inspiration for the Afro-Mexican movement. As the rebellion’s leader, Yanga negotiated a peace settlement with the Catholic priest Alonso de Benavides and Captain Manuel Carrillo, which granted the Yanguícos freedom as long as they did not allow any other self-liberated enslaved people to join them. Although the Spanish Monarchy tried to back out of this peace treaty, it remained in effect until Mexico gained independence in 1821. Since 1976, Yanga has held “Festival of Negritude” and “Primer Pueblo Libre de las Américas” (Festival of the First Free Pueblo in America) celebrations honoring the town’s creation.
This historical post on Gasper Yanga went viral and was picked up by mitú on Instagram and went on to pick up 35,000 likes and started a discussion that went overseas. It was after all of this engagement and interest that they decided to make POC official. “We knew the policy was needed to have an impact and to equip people with talking points so they could apply pressure,” Said Leonardo Nicolas Huerta, POC Organizer.
The group addressed the people in power for their education, the school board, and the city council. Eventually, it was able to have school resource officers removed from some schools and brought half a million dollars back to the school district. The organizing members all have higher education, including Jordan Leopold, having been a student body president at one time. Although currently, there is no POC club or official affiliation with any schools.
“It is crucial to what we do; education on historical figures is intersectional for black and brown folks to come together as a people and overcome the oppressor. Even though we’re showing historical figures, we are highlighting issues today like the Bay Area’s sea level rise, climate crisis, and the Bay Areas’ impact on that and highlighting the impacts in the east bay, given that there are many waste sites where Black and Brown people are living in those zones. We feel it’s our duty to help with education by doing something about it,” said Leonardo.
There are nine prominent organizing leaders in the organization currently. Their official “People of Change” website and mission statement state that “People of Change is on a mission to advance the social, political, and economic well-being of underserved communities of color through direct service and research. We aim to mobilize community members and organizations through social engagement, historical education & political empowerment.” peopleofchange.org
Who does the organization help and represent?
“We’re building a plan to help students while expanding our reach, having been in student government. I know all too well that students need resources and living assistance. Currently, we are growing in numbers and want more student involvement. Student leaders behind movements to expand beyond the community to be a movement. We are Bay Area residents, most of the team is in Hayward and some in Oakland, east bay, but we aim to reach the entire Bay Area. We recognize that although there are a lot of non-profit groups that help communities in the Bay Area. We also see that a good number of the people who work within these organizations don’t live in the neighborhoods of the communities they serve,” said Jordan.
The movement is said to involve all people and is open to all cultural backgrounds, but the group’s primary focus is empowering Black and Brown communities.
What kind of events does POC organize?
POC looks to provide community circles, speaking engagements, and a space for folks to talk about what’s happening to them. Currently, there is a plan in development to facilitate more conversation. Getting in front of people basically with a “soapbox.” Getting ideas and solutions to people who need them.
Additionally, POC would like to start a (Black & Brown) b&b market to highlight other Black & Brown small businesses, farmers markets, and block parties to check out other people’s arts. This collaboration could bring much-needed income to local community members, a new “Black Wallstreet.”
“We need to start small and keep our ears to the community, we can’t assume the value, but we want the actual impact to provide immediate value to people in need. Entertainment as culture, music, and art is of great interest to us; we’re looking to partner with the city of Hayward and local record stores, connecting with the Hayward Chamber of Commerce, blocking off a street, or a southland mall parking lot. Requirements, paperwork, and money are always a concern. We realized if we wanted to do something big, we needed to be more massive without diving too deep into our own pockets. Starting small allowed us to go further with our dollars by getting help within the community. Through coordination and challenge, we ultimately became a lot closer, which was good for the future of the organization,” said Jordan.
POC experienced growing pains and challenges in organizing events with obtaining permits, perishable food they could give out, sanitization, and a wide range of issues around “red tape.” Handing out water on the street to community members in 101-degree heat to people outside wandering around the lake. Hotdogs fed families, and they started connecting with people on a universal level, exchanging pamphlets with religious groups such as Christians and Muslims.
“It never comes down to funding; it comes down to creativity and low-cost, high impact. Getting in front of people, asking what they are looking for, what would benefit and improve their quality of life. Live physical community engagement, we see a lot of value in these, food, water, shelter, clothing, and economic opportunity. Basic level and ensure folks are taken care of and using those engagements. We are hearing the community’s experiences and using that to figure out what else can be done—trying to figure out who can do what and trying to close that gap. We see what works and what doesn’t work to improve our impact.
Coming in and listening based on what we hear, figuring out how we can help, we don’t assume ahead of time. Startups and business circles use this framework, trying to think strategically and not just momentarily.
Having more conversations with folks to see what we can learn and collaborate with other organizations,” said Jordan. POC’s first event was in Oakland at Lake Merritt. The second was with Pamoja Magazine, giving out free water snacks and showcasing art in Palo Alto. “It was a great catalyst culturally for people to see where we were coming from,” said Leonardo.
The third event for POC was attending “First Fridays” in Oakland, handing out pamphlets and water to people coming out of bars or musicians leaving gigs. This event is a regular occurrence, and POC continues to attend, handing out water and information regarding services for people in need.
“We are proud of our communication with communities, and the thinking of this brings to mind my time growing up. I was always discriminated against where I grew up in Palo Alto; my neighbors were treated very badly, which always bothered me. My parents moved from Mexico City to Palo Alto and have been there since the 60s. Myself and my family have not just been discriminated against by police officers but by the fire department and EMTs as well. I have been forced to remove my cultural clothing, including my sandals and stripped down in the middle of the street, and treated as less than human. I communicate about this with friends and family in So-Cal, some of them police officers and I tell them my experience, and even they ask why someone would do that,” said Leonardo.