Richmond city plaza occupation ends after council answers call

Richmond city plaza occupation ends after council answers call
Protesters set up the first tents for the occupation at Richmond Civic Center Plaza on July 7, 2020. (Photos by Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

A three-week-long occupation of Richmond Civic Center ended Tuesday, after the City Council formally acknowledged protesters’ calls for justice for slain Texas soldier Vanessa Guillen and changes in the military.

On July 7, the day after sisters Estefany, Nadia and Jacquelin Sanchez launched the local movement with a large demonstration at City Hall, protesters set up tents, participated in nightly vigils, and committed to remaining in the city’s central plaza until their demands were met. The encampment grew to about 12 tents.

In part, the protesters, part of a group called East Bay Movimiento, have been calling for the City of Richmond to echo their concerns about sexual harassment and abuse in the military. It’s an issue that received a national spotlight in the wake of the death of Guillen, a Fort Hood Army specialist who was reportedly murdered by a fellow soldier.

On Tuesday, Richmond City Council passed a resolution that called for justice for Guillen and change in the military’s culture. In the resolution, the city encouraged other local, county and state government officials “to join the movement and demand justice for all those young men and women who were inducted in the military and have suffered any mistreatment or harassment…”

Local residents participate in a protest action on Friday, July 24, 2020.

Councilmember Eduardo Martinez introduced the resolution in order to inspire change in what he views as a sexist and racist military culture that fails to adequately investigate and stamp out abuse.

“Countless examples of sexual harassment have gone unanswered and in most cases ruled unsubstantiated,” Martinez said. “In fact some cases are covered up by officers in charge.”

As an example, Martinez referred to the case of 19-year-old U.S. Army Private LeVena Lynn Johnson, whose family questions the Army’s version of her death in Iraq in 2005.

Despite achieving City Council support for the movement, the work of East Bay Movimiento is not complete, said Diego Garcia, a Richmond business owner and community advocate who helped organize the city plaza protest.

The movement is also calling on the city and the West Contra Costa Unified School District to prohibit military recruiting on campuses until all military branches adequately address sexual harassment and abuse. Garcia and fellow protesters say young people in Richmond and San Pablo, particularly those from low-income families, are vulnerable to the pressure to enlist in the military and may not be fully aware of these issues.

Fellow protest organizer Gonzalo Rucobo, executive director of Bay Area Peacekeepers, called the acknowledgment from City Council on Tuesday a positive step forward.

“The community’s voice was heard, we kept coming here every day,” Rucobo said. “We knew all of us working together, great things could happen.”