The day after Vonnesha Harris participated in a peaceful protest in downtown Bakersfield, she emerged from her apartment in east Bakersfield to discover her car was on fire.
Harris, 20, said the last time she saw her car in one piece was when she had been sitting in it writing music Monday evening. She eventually left and 20 minutes later a neighbor knocked on her door about 9 p.m. to let her and her family know about a burning vehicle outside.
When Harris stepped outside, she said, she saw her car was in flames.
Once the fire had subsided, Harris said she discovered on the door hateful phrases related to her race and the Black Lives Matter movement. Practically the only word on her car that was suitable for publication was “die.”
The incident left Harris looking for answers.
“I don’t know if people want me to know to not protest, or that they want to do something to me,” she said, adding that somebody would need to know exactly where she lived to find her car in its parking spot. She hadn't seen anyone following her, which she said made everything scarier. “I don’t know if I should feel threatened or not because I don’t know what this was, what this was intended to do.”
The incident opens up the possibility that some of the protesters who have demonstrated in downtown Bakersfield over the last four days could face retaliation for their actions. The Kern County Fire Department is conducting an arson investigation into the fire. Sheriff’s Lt. Joel Swanson said both the KCFD and the Sheriff’s Office had contributed to a report on what happened Monday night.
“(The fire) just made me realize that all of this is real,” Harris said. “We see this happen in bigger cities and bigger states, and we’re just a little small town. Now we know that we have these types of people out here that will do this to us.”
On Sunday, Harris spoke to The Californian about her desire to participate in a peaceful protest, saying she disapproved of the vandalism that had taken place downtown but wanted to speak up about the injustices she sees in America. But on Tuesday, she said she would pull back from participating in the ongoing protests, concerned over the safety of herself and her family.
“I don’t think I’m going to go back to the protests if this is what we’re going to get for speaking up in our community and trying to go after justice,” she said.
Still, a silver lining emerged following the fire. Harris said many people in the community had reached out to her in support. A GoFundMe page dedicated to raising money to help Harris buy a new car quickly gained traction online Tuesday.
Because her car was uninsured at the time of its destruction, Harris said the money would be put to good use. She said she worked hard to be able to afford the car, a 2009 Chevy Impala, and she didn’t think it should be taken away from her because she spoke up.
She added that she was overwhelmed with the support and said she’s just hoping to be able to drive to her minimum-wage job.
“Anything will help me,” she said, adding even money for a bus pass would be helpful. “I don’t need anything extravagant. I just need a car to drive me to work.”