Local BLM leaders worked in law enforcement

Jon Wizard at a recent protest | Joe Livernois photo


By Karen Dorantes

Soon after the video of George Floyd’s death became viral, activists in Monterey County called for change to the criminal justice system with protests and demands to defund police.

The video, showing a Minneapolis officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck in late May, has brought greater awareness to the injustices the Black community faces with police brutality. Black Lives Matter, an organization that brings light to injustices faced by Black people, was founded after the 2012 shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, and it took on a greater leadership role after Floyd’s death.

Among the most vocal local leaders for change have been a couple of Black men who have worked in law enforcement. One of the rising local BLM activists, Nathaniel Sawyer, is a former Missouri corrections officer. Sawyer said he believes that while training for the job at police academy he was being trained to work against people of color. “They were teaching me to target people like me,” he said.

Growing up in Alabama, he said he experienced a lot of discrimination, including systemic discrimination in the education system. He said schools there gave two diplomas: “an advanced diploma that would help you get into college and a ‘standard diploma,’ which was mostly for low income and people of color.”

Sawyer has been active in organizing and speaking at protests throughout Monterey County since Floyd’s death.


Nathaniel Sawyer

Meanwhile, Seaside City Councilman Jon Wizard organized the first local protest after Floyd’s death, at Monterey’s Window on the Bay, with Monterey City Councilman Tyller Williamson.

Wizard has been a leading local advocate for the Defund Police movement. Previously he worked as a police officer in San Luis Obispo and later as a deputy in San Benito County before getting injured and turning to public policy. Wizard said he isn’t advocating that police be abolished completely, but rather that a percentage of the police’s funds be used for other community services.

Wizard’s support for the Defund Police movement has resulted in some criticism within the city. The Seaside Police Officers Association issued a statement saying that its members were “disappointed” with Wizard’s advocacy for the issue. Also, after unsuccessfully asking the City Council to reduce the Seaside police budget by 7% to fund other programs, Wizard was met with a recall effort by a group of Seaside residents.

“So people are trying to take me away from the office that I was elected to,” he said, “because they feel I’m endangering the community by asking for 7% of the police budget, 3% of the city’s budget, to go into the programs that keep people housed, and fed, and healthy.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has gained support around the globe after Floyd’s death, with actions that include protests, financial contributions to relevant organizations, petitions, and social media campaigns. Even police officers, the focal point of the problem, have been seen showing solidarity toward the Black community.

But Wizard said that the fact that police chiefs “unilaterally” added policies banning chokehold restraints after Floyd’s death and after people started speaking out doesn’t help their case. “What was it about protests and (the) national movement that police chiefs said, ‘I guess I should not allow that anymore in my department?’” he said. “Why didn’t that happen sooner? Where was the initiative, the proactive approach, to community policing? What type of community policing is choking people?”

As time passes, activists continue to maintain momentum to seek criminal justice reform.

When asked what the community can do to help, Sawyer suggested that young people “put it on Twitter (and) Instagram, start having conversations with people who don’t want to have those conversations. Continue to march, continue to protest, because the politicians, the lawmakers, they’re the ones we’re trying to get to change and to listen to us. And they are listening, because they have no choice, because we’re the people. The power is in the people.”

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About Young Voices

Young Voices Media Project teaches Monterey Bay area teens multimedia skills to report the news from their communities. This project was generously supported by the Clare Giannini Fund.