On the Ground Q&A: Robbie Jones

On the Ground Q&A: Robbie Jones

On the Ground 1

Born and raised in Santa Monica, Robbie Jones began her activism at a young age by participating in neighborhood organizations “that affected change.” She is a member of both the Committee for Racial Justice and Coalition for Police Reform in Santa Monica. Jones is also owner of Black Santa Monica Tours and Concierge, which has been giving tours of greater Los Angeles since 2004 to share expertise about local Black history. 

How do you remember May 31, 2020 in Santa Monica? What is important about that day and the moments that followed?

People in Santa Monica know that I’m an activist in my community and I have been most of my adult life. But everyone thought that I planned the (Santa Monica protest) march, even my own family. I knew nothing about the march. I knew, of course, what had happened to George Floyd. I knew that there were marches everywhere. I never thought that there was one (coming to) Santa Monica. My daughter sent me (a) flyer on a text, and I said, “Oh, Santa Monica? I’m going.”

Then I began to get calls. Everyone called, all the dignitaries saying (that I) set this march up. Basically they wanted to say, “Why did you do this?” (I’ll admit), I was so excited (to march) … though I didn’t rush down because I wasn’t sure what I was going to run into. I just kind of watched to see what was going on for a moment. And then … a large group of people came, so rah, rah, I was right there with them. But then I noticed that police were also coming. As we started to walk down the street, I saw officers–ones I have met with many times at City Hall in meetings because of my activism–strapping on helmets, getting ready like it was going to be a riot or something. And I’m looking at them like, “Here we go again.”

What was going through your mind at that moment?

They’re just overreacting. Because everyone around us was peaceful. Of course, we were shouting, “Enough is enough.” We were shouting the names of the victims … shouting for George Floyd … Nobody was destroying any property, but the police were suiting up like they were preparing for it. And guess what happened then? All of a sudden, we start hearing that there was looting in the city. So, the police are strapping up. I’m in the center, on the front lines. My kids are calling me from the East Coast, “Mom, do you really have to be in the front?” “Yes, I have to be here to let my community know that I’m here.”

When does the day take a different turn for you and the protesters?

My girlfriend called me and she was screaming, “They’re running out of all the stores across the streets! The police are everywhere! People are looting and they’re everywhere!” I went home … and in a different part (of the city), other than where I was down by the pier, the police were shooting rubber bullets (at protestors). And I thought, this is out of control.

They’re bringing out tanks. These are peaceful protestors, just trying to show their dissatisfaction, their outrage, but they’re not doing anything (wrong). And for me, I always say Santa Monica police know–because it’s only 8.3 square miles–they basically know who is in the community. They know who’s in the neighborhood. So, when outsiders come (to cause trouble), you know who that is, too. The fact that they were harassing and shooting at community people–particularly one person who knew the officer that shot the bullet at her–I thought that was really ridiculous.

I didn’t even understand the message that they were trying to send other than they were bullies, or they were frightened, or they were afraid of innocent people who didn’t have anything like my little wobbly paper sign. I was just outraged.

The night was extremely tense. You could hear the helicopters, the air smelled different. It just felt different. A very different Santa Monica.

Where has there been the most resistance to reform efforts? Why do you think this is the case?

I spent a lot of years believing police officers, believing council members, believing that people were trying to make a change, to affect change. It wasn’t until I joined two activist groups … insisting on action, demanding action … that’s when I found out, “Well, wait a minute. They are not trying to make change.”

Following the protests, we knew we needed a police oversight commission. A group that could make decisions and see reports. The one thing regarding the protests, it was being reported soon after that we were unruly. That we (the protestors) turned it into a riot and began looting. It was meant to degrade our right to have a voice and protest. And it just wasn’t true.

I’m not saying the community is perfect, but you have to have conversations with us. That’s first. And then you have to move into some action. And it would be nice if you moved into action without a judge demanding that it happens, without legislation or the government or whatever, telling you what you have to do something. You know what’s right. Just do the right thing. But that doesn’t happen.

And until that happens, I’m really concerned that there’ll be more George Floyds, more Breonna Taylors, more of the same for Black people. I’m African American. That’s what I can really speak to because that’s what I know best. And I don’t want to see that.

What should happen in Santa Monica to help the city’s residents achieve the goals of having a system of public safety that is fair, safe, and equitable for everyone?

Unless you get the (police) officers to interact positively with the people and to hear … and that’s always been a problem … because the police, they want to be heard, but they don’t want to hear what the community has to say. So, they put up a defense. And that reflects negatively to the community. The community gets very angry. “If you don’t want to hear me, you don’t want to hear my side. You don’t want to hear what has happened to me.” So, if you don’t want to hear that you have offended someone, you definitely don’t want to apologize or you don’t want to feel anything. You just want to do whatever it is you want to do. That’s what makes people angry. That’s what makes our community not trust police officers.

Just as an example of what could be done, I put a program together with the Committee for Racial Justice. The first part of the program was to take police officers on a tour of the Black history of Santa Monica. This way, they could learn the history of Black people, their beginnings of coming to Santa Monica. And then, through that, they would learn their experiences … and we could break bread together, have a lunch … have the young people and those who have been affected by negative police interactions … be able to express how they feel.

At one point with a previous chief, we even had a little money for it. But since she left, it’s been the same promises but no action. I don’t think the veteran officers want it to happen. It’s too touchy-feel good and humanistic. They don’t want to learn about how you feel. They just want to do their job. And so as long as we have that behavior, we’re going to have more of the same.

This interview, part of the On The Ground: Santa Monica series, has been edited for length and clarity.