'Creating a Society We Deserve': Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs on the Role of Protest

3 min
Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs in his office. (Nick Otto/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the weekend, thousands took to the streets across California to protest the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police, sparked by the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and numerous others.

While largely peaceful protests called for recognition, reform and solidarity, many ended with reports of widespread vandalism, theft and fires.

Several California cities – now including much of the Bay Area – have established curfews, and some have cited and arrested numerous demonstrators for alleged violations.

As many Californians continue to express anger and unrest, co-host of KQED's "The California Report" Saul Gonzalez spoke with Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs about his perspective on this weekend's protests.

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This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What's your reaction to what we've seen in California, and across the U.S., these past few days?

This country is hurting and this country is once again forced to grapple with a question that we've had countless fights and countless protests over since the original land theft and genocide of native people, and then the kidnapping of Africans to be brought here for child and slave labor:

Does the protection of the Constitution truly apply to everyone? And does everyone have equality under the law?

I think what we've seen is the expression of nihilism and hurt. And I know there's a lot of focus on some of the looting and the property damage – and of course, that's unacceptable. I think it's easy to condemn that as unacceptable. I think it's much harder to condemn structures in our society that we've seen even before the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor incidents.

As someone who's African American, who grew up in poverty himself — who's actually closer in age to most protesters than many officials — I'm sure you completely understand the pain and anger of many who took to the streets. But how do you explain that to people who just don't get it in this country? 

Honestly, at this point, I think people are willfully ignorant. If you see a man who is murdered by a police officer, who put his knee on this man's neck, and it doesn't make you upset or angry — you've lost some humanity or you don't see the person who was murdered as human.

Being a young black man with a black wife and a black son. I have a black father who's been in jail for the last 27 years. It's definitely personal. But I know, when I see images of kids in cages, when I see images of people in Appalachia who can't eat, all those things affect me and make me upset.

For people who don't understand, I think part of it is reckoning with the fact that this system — the institutions that worked fine for you and your family — it doesn't work and it hasn't, historically, worked for a lot of people. And that's what people are upset about. And that's what people want to see changed.

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As mayor, what do you think cities and civic institutions — which are already struggling with the pandemic — have to do next?

I think every elected official has to come up with a set of proposals. And policies aren't going stop everything. But that, at least, speaks to the very real pain.

And that we all start to speak very clearly about what's evil in our society. What's evil is white supremacy. What's evil is the president saying 'when the looting starts, the shooting starts.' What's evil is how routinely folks face — based on where they happen to be born and who they happen to be born to — diminished life chances and terrible life outcomes in some cases.

It's not easy, but I think it's necessary. I think, in this moment, it's time for leaders to lead.

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And also for community members: those who are protesting, those who are not. I think the folks who write racist messages on Nextdoor, for example, have a role to play. I think people who clutch their purses when they see young black men walking in hoodies on their streets have a role to play. I think each and every one of us have to examine what role do we play, what role do we want to play? And, again, just creating a society we deserve. And a society where there's true liberty and justice for all.

I assume your child's future is at the forefront of your thinking when you say these things.

100%. I look at him — he's sweet, he's brilliant, he's kind, he's loving, he's smart. And he deserves a world where he's able to walk around the street or jog in his neighborhood ... he just deserves every opportunity that every other kid gets.

And it's heartbreaking to think that — unless we make some drastic changes in how we think and interact with each other in this country — 15, 16 years from now, this beautiful, sweet, kind boy will be looked at as a thug, a danger or as a threat. Just because he was born to black parents.

I am very hopeful. We have the opportunity to really create the country that we deserve. It won't be easy, but we can do it. And I think enough people are fed up with the way things have been to get closer to that goal. I'm excited to be a partner in that work.