That young woman with the guitar, the one up front at the microphone urging healing and restraint in the midst of this country’s most prolonged stretch of civil rights turmoil in a generation — yes, her, with the Tracy Chapman urgency and dreadlocks to match.
She deserves a listen.
Crimson Skye Hochhalter says she's not especially political, or wasn’t until recently. The anger in the streets, coming from both directions, changed things for her.
So, the 24-year-old African-American folk singer, a throwback in many ways to another time, came off the bench and invited the community to what she called a Black Lives Matter sit-in at Bakersfield’s Mill Creek Park. About 300 people showed up for the June 3 event, including Bakersfield City Manager Christian Clegg and City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, both of whom spoke to the crowd.
Hochhalter, who goes simply by Crimson Skye on stage — you may have caught her solo act at local venues such as Locale, Temblor or Sandrini’s — wanted to ratchet back the noise and angst that has roiled Bakersfield and most of the country since George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, became an unlikely martyr, dying May 25 in the custody of Minneapolis police after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Demonstrators have walked the streets of Bakersfield, and of the nation, every night since, with no sign of an end. Hochhalter felt compelled to do something, or a series of somethings, to ease the tension.
“Peacework, I suppose that’s what you could call it,” she told me last week. “I wanted to be invoking peace and understanding and analyzation and reflection and self-awareness.”
So she and friend Kelsey Sill put together the low-key, two-hour, bring-your-own-blanket gathering in the park.
She knows that the term Black Lives Matter conjures up different images for different people, oftentimes negative. To Hochhalter, the meaning of the phrase, and the movement, is fairly straightforward: all lives matter, she says, but black lives have been systemically devalued in this country for too long. The spasms of anger and fed-upness we’ve seen, she believes, are outgrowths of that.
“I am glad that people want to get out and want to get involved and are willing to risk something and sacrifice something to actually make a difference,” she said. “But I would love for there to be a more organized, more peaceful, more intentional, more purposeful way to come together and speak on things that need to be discussed.”
Hochhalter doesn't pretend to be a victim of virulent or ongoing racism. She's experienced it, certainly, but she has been blessed. Even the loss of her mother, Lea Brown, to cancer 20 years ago was a gift of sorts.
“She was diagnosed when she was pregnant with me,” Hochhalter said. “At the time, (medical professionals’) strategy was to suggest abortion and immediate treatment. She decided that was not the way she wanted to go. She wanted to not start treatment and not abort, but have me. Thank God. And thank her.”
Even then, Lea Brown waited to start treatment. She wanted to breastfeed her baby.
“‘I know what's important to you here, and that's me,’” Hochhalter said, addressing her mother. “That's super freakin’ amazing.”
Hochhalter said she'll always carry that gift, and that sense of duty.
She attended Garces Memorial High School, where she was a three-time valley champion in tennis.
She took all of the school’s required religion classes, of course, but did not have Timothy Gordon as an instructor.
Gordon is the teacher who was dismissed last week by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno after 150 Garces students, parents and alumni signed a petition expressing outrage over his “unacceptable messages of ignorance and hate” on social media and in the classroom.
In social media posts, Gordon endorsed emptying ammunition clips in the direction of rioters and compared the “gayness” of a well-known LGBTQ-supportive priest to that of a pastel-wearing demonstrator.
He says he was fired for being “too Roman Catholic.”
“Fortunately,” Hochhalter said Saturday, “I had pretty good religious teachers throughout my years at Garces. If I would’ve had Gordon, I think we may well have had a conflict.”
Today, Hochhalter is the tennis coach at East Bakersfield High School and, in her day job, a real estate agent — combined, not the kind of resume one would expect to find in the pocket of a spokeswoman for the downtrodden.
“Yeah, I'm a strange jigsaw for sure,” she said. “Without a doubt.”
She is not finished working as an advocate for peace, she says, and this certainly doesn’t seem like the time to quit.
Gordon is right about this: We’ve seen plenty of violence and looting these past two weeks — opportunistic criminals who care more about big-screen TVs and the perverse joy of destruction than about a better society.
We haven’t seen any of them carrying Black Lives Matter placards, though — maybe because it's difficult to wave a sign and at the same time lug 12 boxes of Nike shoes through a broken plate-glass window. Or maybe because the overlap is negligible, if even that. No one can authoritatively say.
We can say this, though: The 300 people who assembled in Mill Creek Park last week to hear Crimson Skye sing about peace weren’t there abetting any domestic terror organizations, willfully or otherwise. They were there because they’ve seen enough terror. And because, to them — and to the vast majority of marchers, I’ll wager — the term Black Lives Matter means exactly that, and only that.