Olivia Brown and her fiance, Michael Crisp, participated in a protest against racial injustice on Sunday at Courthouse Square in downtown Sonora, while David Dennis and about a dozen others watched from the opposite side of Washington Street.
Brown, who is black, and Crisp, who is white, went across the street toward the end of the protest when they were approached by Dennis, a 42-year-old Marine Corps veteran, who asked them about their experience as an interracial couple living in Tuolumne County.
“They actually told me some things that were upsetting to me,” he said after their interaction. “Not only bigoted words or racial epithets, but also had pennies thrown at them.”
Dennis, of Sonora, urged them to take video and photos next time a person harasses them.
“I told them I want to know who’s doing that to you,” he said.
The exchange was one of several that people from opposing sides of the street said they had with each other during the demonstration that they walked away from feeling a better sense of understanding.
Despite not standing on the same side as the protesters, Dennis said he agreed with their message that something needs to be done about black people being killed disproportionately by police in the United States.
“Hopefully, they’ve seen me treat them with respect,” he said. “I don’t want to shut down their voice.”
Brown, 28, was born in Sonora and has lived in the county for most of her life. She and Crisp, 29, have been together for almost eight years and have endured racist attacks, such as being told to go back to Africa and having rocks thrown at them from cars.
The couple was anticipating another confrontation when Dennis first approached them, but were surprised and delighted by the conversation they ended up having.
“We were able to discuss these incidents with David and he said he had his eyes opened and had no idea these types of incidents were going on in Sonora,” Brown said. “If we continue just having these conversations and not immediately attacking each other, I think it will open a lot of people’s eyes.”
About 70 people participated in the protest at the park on Sunday to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died on May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the back of his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while he was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground.
Ongoing protests have been occurring throughout the country since Floyd’s death, including one at Courthouse Square on June 3 that drew hundreds of people.
“It literally means the world seeing people like stand up and stop being silent, stop letting this happen,” Brown said. “It’s really incredible to see the amount of people who are in support of this. I don’t really know how else to describe it, but incredible.”
The previous protest in Sonora and two others in Angels Camp on June 5 and 6 gained widespread attention and were covered by both The Guardian and The Los Angeles Times due to the hype and fear surrounding them among some in the community.
Organizers of the protests received threats as a result of rumors fueled by social media about busloads of looters and rioters coming to wreak havoc on the small, mostly white conservative towns, all of which turned out to be unfounded.
While the protest on June 3 featured a heavy presence of law enforcement, including from neighboring counties, there were about four Sonora police officers watching from a distance at the height of the one on Sunday.
"We look at the social media stuff and didn't see a lot of talk about it or anti-protesters, so we scaled back," said Sonora Police Sgt. Curtis Hankins. "Everybody's on call, but not everybody's here."
There wasn't as much shouting and name calling between protesters and counter-protestors on Sunday, but it was not without a few moments of tension.
An argument broke out on the steps of the Tuolumne County Veterans Memorial Hall between protesters and people wearing "All Lives Matter" T-shirts, which is what prompted Brown and Crisp to cross the street.
At one point, the protesters began protesting on the veterans hall side of the street after a man who declined to give his name parked a long horse trailer directly in front of the protesters while he went to pick up some food.
Dennis actively pleaded with the man to move the trailer, which he felt was disrespectful to the protesters.
Justin Connor, 42, of Sonora, also crossed the street at one point and got into some arguments with protesters in the park while waving an American flag and wearing an "All Lives Matter" T-shirt that said "Small Town Strong" on the back.
Connor and his friends said they were there to "protect the town from violence and looting" and not as counter protesters, but he took issue a protester’s sign that stated “America was never great” as a Marine Corps veteran who served for 18 years and did two tours each in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"If you think America is so bad, do you think you could do this in other places? You'll get your hands cut off," he said. "You'll get worse than just suicided by the Clintons."
Despite the tensions with protesters, Connor later said he spoke to several who eventually convinced him to replace his "All Lives Matter" shirts with ones that state "Equality Matters."
Sadriel Matthews, 22, of Sonora, was one of the protesters who spoke to Connor and exchanged phone numbers with him to continue the conversation.
"Even if we could make just one person understand the movement, that's why we're out here," she said. "I feel like I changed one person's mind, which is more than I could have hoped for."
Like the protest on June 3, the Black Lives Matter supporters represented a wide range of ages and ethnicities.
Leon Montan, 13, of Ponderosa Hills, at one point kneeled on the steps of the veterans hall while raising his fist and holding a Black Lives Matter sign as Rocky Armitage and Jamie Franklin, both of Sonora, stood stoically behind him guarding the doors to the building.
"I came out here because of the policy brutality that's happening and how 'All Lives Matter' is denying the problem," he said. "Black lives are the ones being targeted the most, but they are trying to say it's all lives."
Seth Ramsey, 25, of Sonora, held a sign that stated "We created racism, we need to now destroy it!"
Ramsey said it was the first protest he's ever attended.
"It's happened over and over again and nothing's changed," he said. "I felt like I needed to be part of this to have my voice heard and show it's not just a Republican county."
There were several people also holding signs with statements like "Abolish the police" and "Defund the police," the latter of which has been an increasingly visible demand at protests throughout the country.
Shay Hall, 28, of San Andreas, previously lived in Sonora and has attended all the recent protests in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.
Hall doesn't plan to stop going to protests until changes are made to the system.
"That includes prosecuting all the officers responsible for deaths, reopening cases of black people who were wrongfully imprisoned, and defunding the police and redirecting that back to mental health, homelessness, and education," Hall said. "The police are just a Band-Aid for society, when we need to actually treat the wound."
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 768-5175.