Listening was the primary point of emphasis at the Bakersfield Unity Rally Thursday evening at St. Peter Restoration Community Christian Ministries.
Organizer Natesha “T” Johnson explained the rally wasn’t intended to be a typical one; neither signs nor posters were permitted in the building and the audience wasn't allowed to speak.
“What we have here is that we’re rallying up the troops,” Johnson said. “We’re rallying up the community to listen and share our experiences to put forth into action.”
The evening also revolved around the message, “If you see something, say something.” Racism is something in particular to say something about, Johnson said.
Another organizer, Traco Matthews, director of human resources at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, said the unity rally was to bring people together to have an open, honest dialogue about “where we want to go” as a community.
Matthews said the spark was lit to hold the rally shortly after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day. Matthews wanted to bring people from different backgrounds and on “both sides of the issue” together to find a solution.
“This shouldn’t just be the burden of black people (to work towards equality),” he said. “It should be a mandate for every citizen of the United States of America.”
Due to health and safety guidelines in the midst of COVID-19, masks were required. Attendees were spaced at least 6 feet apart throughout the sanctuary and occupancy was capped at 100. An hour before the event, a group waited outside the church and endured the presummer heat to ensure a spot at the event.
Seventeen community leaders, elected officials, education leaders and law enforcement members spoke at the rally.
Mayor Karen Goh emphasized that in order to understand the suffering of certain community members, difficult conversations must be had within one’s self before talking to their “brothers and sisters” in the community.
“As a community, we first have to look deep inside because we’re facing an issue that begins with the heart,” said Goh.
Event organizer Gene Tackett, a former Kern County supervisor, said he wants to continue supporting law enforcement locally and doesn’t want to defund police. However, he made clear he's a strong advocate of police reform, especially after witnessing 75-year-old Martin Gugino injured by officers of the Buffalo Police Department, and the department’s response.
Two Buffalo police officers have been charged with second-degree assault after video captured Gugino falling to the ground after being pushed by police. He was bleeding from his head as officers walked away. Subsequently, 57 of the officers colleagues in Buffalo resigned to protest the officers' suspension from the department.
“There’s an invisible shield of protection that police officers have (with each other). We need to break that down,” Tackett said.
Bakersfield NAACP President Patrick Jackson passionately cited a number of local injustices to African-Americans that have happened recently. He urged action, not just “nice words and kumbaya.”
Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Terry was given one of the final slots to speak.
He acknowledged he's going to make mistakes at the helm and that the BPD is not going to be perfect. He said he's been studying the Bible, especially the verse “be quick to listen, slow to speak.”
“As your chief of police, we are resolved to do better. We have heard our community's message and I know that it starts with me and the message I deliver to our men and women every day,” Terry said.
“The Bakersfield Police Department will ensure that our policies and practices will represent 21st century policing. We are committed to earning and building trust where there is none.”
Throughout the evening, embracing differences was mentioned frequently by speakers. The venue’s pastor, V.K. Jones, emphasized acknowledging differences can be the first step to unity.
“Anyone that says they don’t see color is lying. Even a colorblind person can see the difference between a black person and a white person,” Jones said. “What we need to stop doing is treating each other differently based on the color you see.”