Juneteenth rally for justice and healing in Chico

Chico celebrated Juneteenth on Friday with back-to-back events. The first focused on building better relations with Chico police while the second included speakers seeking to defund the police and demanding justice.

The Orion covered the second event, “Juneteenth: Gathering for Justice and Healing,” organized by the Justice for Desmond Phillips campaign. The event sought to honor the lives of people of color killed by police across the country.

Speakers strongly advocated for holding Butte County and Chico Police officers accountable. They also sought to educate citizens in Chico about the killings of Desmond Phillips and Marc Thompson, two cousins both killed in Butte County.

Desmond Phillips was a Black man who was shot dead in his home after having a PTSD attack on March 17, 2017. When his father David Phillips called an ambulance to diffuse the situation. Chico police arrived and tased Desmond, then shot him multiple times.

For over three years, father David Phillips has been speaking out against police brutality, advocating for police accountable and organizing events in hopes of seeing justice for his son Desmond Phillips and Desmond’s cousin, Marc Thompson.

“This is a peaceful event,” Phillips said. “And you will hear the truth, the real story in the capital murder of Desmond Phillips as well as the murder of Marc Thompson.”

Thompson was a Chico State student. His body was found in his burned car 28 miles northeast of Oroville on Sept. 3, 2014. Almost six years later police have not made any arrests.

The plaza stage doubled as an altar. Pictures, candles, signs and flowers were placed at the foot of the stage to honor Desmond Phillips and other Black citizens killed by the police. The stage featured two large posters of Desmond.

The rest of the event focused on educating the public on Black history, the significance of Juneteenth and knowing one’s rights when encountering law enforcement.

The crowd honored the memory of George Floyd with eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence while three on-stage drummers played a slow cadence symbolizing George Floyd’s heartbeat.

David Phillips teared up on stage as he began talking about his son. He told the audience of the warnings he gave to emergency responders. He accused Chico Police of entering his home unannounced. He said his grandchildren were in their rooms while Desmond suffered from a PTSD attack and grabbed two knives from the kitchen. Seeing his son dead literally brought him to his knees, Phillips said.

The bullet holes from that night are still scattered throughout his living room, David Phillips said. He shared a picture of his son taken moments after his death. 

The Justice for Desmond Phillips team again called for Chico Police officers Alex Fliehr, Jeremy Gagnebin and Sgt. Todd Lefkowitz to be arrested. David Phillips claimed to be in contact with the FBI and expressed deep frustration and anger with the former Chico Chief of Police Mike O’Brien and District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

David Phillips wasn’t the only person to appear on stage. Other family members and community organizers shared their personal stories, history lessons and poetry.

Lesa Johnson, assistant professor of sociology at Chico State, provided a history lesson on the Emancipation Proclamation

“The Bethel AME church had a Juneteenth celebration this time last year,” said Johnson. “We did research on President Lincoln and the true nature of the emancipation proclamation, the fact that it did not free all slaves, it only freed slaves in states that he needed to negotiate with.”

The second lesson concerned the racist legacy of some Northern California orchards.

“We also did research on the heritage of some of the orchard owners,” Johnson said. “The history here is that there were descendants of slave owners who settled in Northern California.”

Johnson shared these lessons because she feels her students and the general public often have an inaccurate perception of U.S. history.

“It is always important to understand our history,” Johnson said. “I find that so many of our students do not understand the true history of the places where we live or of the United States. If you can’t understand the history of where you are then you don’t understand the nature of the relationships between the racial and ethnic groups there. So we have to be able to go back into history and understand where all of this started.”

Another session focused on teaching citizens their rights, such as the right to record police or the right to walk away if you are not being detained or arrested. They shared ways to hold police accountable for their actions. Rain Scher, another event organizer who has hosted Cop Watch events in the past, shared her advice and opinions.

“This entire event is happening because of the police,” Scher said. “If it weren’t for police violating people’s rights and killing people, we wouldn’t have this event in the first place. We want to make sure anyone that is interested in supporting people who are affected by police violence know what their rights are and know how to support other people in asserting their rights.”

Scher presented a recap on citizens’ rights when encountering police and provided handouts of Chico police officers involved in fatal shootings.

Scher recommended recording footage of police encounters using the American Civil Liberties Union app. The footage is automatically sent to the ACLU database for review.

One of the most important rights Scher mentioned during an encounter with the police is the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

“A lot of people get bullied and intimidated into talking and incriminating themselves, even saying things that aren’t true,” Scher said.

Chico State student Cami Tillman found out about the event throughout the Justice for Desmond Phillips Facebook page.

Tillman presented her poem “Rotating States in Cycles” in front of the large audience. The piece focused on the struggles that Black people face through events like the killing of George Floyd.

“It was about the different emotions we and Black people are feeling as we navigate all the different deaths and trauma that has been going on consistently,” Tillman said. “Just having to continue to play the game even though there is so much more being stacked on constantly.”

Julian Mendoza can be reached on Twitter @JulianMTheOrion or at [email protected]