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A silent “die-in” protest as San Diego City Council members were being inaugurated late last year was almost a victim of bad planning.
Barely two weeks after a grand jury declined to indict the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, Mark Jones and a group of 20 or so San Diego protesters wanted to make a statement. The group would gather in public and mimic being dead to draw further attention to police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
But they initially planned to show up at the federal building downtown, not knowing that on the day they’d chosen, the city’s VIPs and media would be packed inside Golden Hall to inaugurate newly elected city officials.
It was only the fourth time Jones had ever stepped out to demonstrate, let alone lead. The first was just days earlier at SDSU, as similar protests in Brown’s honor cropped up around the nation. Taking action felt like a “necessity,” Jones said – posting angry treatises on Facebook and nodding along with talking heads on the news weren’t enough.
When he showed up at a City Heights protest that week, he couldn’t help but notice his was one of the few black faces in attendance.
“It’s not that there weren’t blacks there, there just wasn’t enough,” Jones said. “I was marching with Hispanics and whites and Asians and they were more gung-ho about our issues than it seemed like my people were.”
One of the organizers from a group called United Against Police Terror warmed up the crowd. But when it came time to march, Jones took the mic and the lead.
It suited him. He tapped into skills gleaned from his four years in the Marine Corps.
“I can’t walk into anything and see it unorganized. It bothers me,” he said. “When I initially stepped into it, it just didn’t seem like I could find very many faces, especially amongst our leadership. So I decided to do something on my own.”
As the city grapples with racial justice issues including community-police relations and gang prosecutions, Jones has catapulted to the forefront of the conversation just a few months after dipping his toe in the activism pool.
Civic leaders are paying attention – and not necessarily the ones you’d expect.
Growing up, the Jones household wasn’t much of a hub of social activism, just two military parents trying to raise three adopted sons right. They lived next door to what Jones called the projects of Statesboro, Ga., and knew which houses in town to stay away from by the fluttering Confederate flags out front. As he grew up and set out to make a life for himself, his focus had largely been building a personal training business, OneFitJam, which he still juggles.
The activism work doesn’t come naturally for him. But it’s no less driven.
“I just think my part in it is to be a voice for a voiceless people, like that don’t have the type of passion or drive that I would have to get stuff done,” he said. “I can fight on their behalf.”
In the days leading up to the die-in demonstration, another local organizer set Jones straight about the inauguration, and the group changed course. On Dec. 10, as police officers inside Golden Hall eyed them cautiously, the protesters filed into the room.
The demonstrators followed Jones’ hand signals, silently switching between raising their arms, a nod to the “hands up, don’t shoot” rallying cry used by protestors across the country, and clutching their throats, a reference to Eric Garner, a New York man killed when police used a chokehold move to subdue him, against department policy. Later, protesters collapsed to the floor.
The group was orderly but impossible to ignore. Jones had a list of demands he’d hoped to read, but didn’t see a clear opportunity during the ceremony to take the mic. He’d have to reach the Council members another way.
One problem: He couldn’t name them if he tried. Jones had to ask a reporter who’d been covering the group’s march that morning to point them out, eventually approaching Council members David Alvarez, Mark Kersey, Chris Cate and Myrtle Cole.
“It was only like a 30-second transaction,” Jones said. “‘We’re here, we’re the protesters that were just in your room.’ They looked like, ‘Oh, what’s he gonna do?’” But the Council members took copies of the demands.
He wouldn’t learn until later, when a KPBS reporter came calling, that remarks made by one of Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s staffers were causing a stir. Shirley Owen, a community representative for Zapf, was overheard calling Jones and the others protesters “fucking idiots.” She said she wanted to shoot them.
The die-in and ensuing controversy reveals a lot about Jones’ activist awakening. It highlighted his inexperience: He never managed to seize the spotlight in order to read the group’s demands publicly; he couldn’t recognize the very people he needed to appeal to. But he orchestrated the event in a way that made it respectful but compelling, and he had the raw sense to seize on the Zapf staffer incident and use it to make a point.
The next week, Jones and a few protesters appeared again in front of City Council members. This time, they were calling for Owen’s head.
“How is she a community representative? What community is she representing that she’s thinking like that?” Jones said, recalling the incident. “And to me it was nothing personal. It just meant that she represented Lorie Zapf.”
The demonstrators wanted Owen fired, and cited other demands to confront police brutality, including appointing a special prosecutor to handle all deadly force cases.
Beginning with Cole, several Council members spoke up to thank Jones for being respectful during the previous week’s demonstration. Just after the meeting, Cole and Council President Sherri Lightner called Jones in to chat. They wanted to work with him on his demands.
Jones had just started the Black Student Justice Coalition a couple weeks after the City Heights protest. It functions as a network across campuses in San Diego, rallying students for demonstrations – to varying degrees of success, depending on the academic calendar. The group is now the primary vehicle for his activism, and core members joined Jones during meetings with Council members. In the last few months, he’s sat down with the mayor and SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman as well. When other students went home for the holidays, the 33-year-old SDSU junior went out for the meetings alone.
Councilman Todd Gloria talked numbers with Jones, and said if Jones’ group would be requesting resources from the city budget, they’d need to articulate their request soon. Jones said Cate was new to the Council, and cautious about promising much. But Jones took his notes from that meeting and, shrewdly, sent them to the other Council members.
“It was an accountability thing but it was also like, uh, we want more meetings,” Jones said, easing into a grin.
He got them. Councilwoman Marti Emerald asked Jones to speak at the Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee meeting. He was invited to speak in front of the Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices, the city’s investigative body that examines complaints against officers, and smaller community groups.
Dwayne Crenshaw, a community leader and CEO of the nonprofit RISE San Diego, and former City Council President Tony Young asked Jones to appear on a panel on community-police relations for their organization’s urban breakfast series, “based on his recent high profile leadership and being impressed with it,” Crenshaw said. They weren’t the only ones.
Jones was by far the greenest member of the panel, but the event became his star turn:
— Mark Cafferty (@Markcaffertysd) March 20, 2015
Is Mark Jones on Twitter? Such an important voice in the community. #RiseChat
— Liz Faris (@LizBFaris) March 20, 2015
“I’m very impressed with him,” Zimmerman told me. Before joining him on stage for the RISE breakfast, the police chief met with Jones to discuss his group’s concerns. “It was very evident to me that he very much cares. I think he saw that in me, that I very much care, our police department very much cares about our community. I don’t think he was aware of so much of the community outreach that we do.”
Zimmerman pointed out to Jones that certain policies already in place addressed some of the group’s demands, such as releasing the names of police officers involved in incidents of deadly force within 72 hours, for example.
Unfamiliarity with standing policies is another rookie mistake. But Jones said that he wants the chief to do more than merely clarify existing rules. In an updated list of demands presented to City Council on Jan. 15, Jones’ group wrote, “In meeting with Chief Zimmerman about the BSJC list of demands we find [that] she is an officer of conviction and high standards … While the BSJC appreciates the response to the demands by the SDPD we believe that stating the existing policy is not enough to protect the community from the above mentioned grievances.”
“She honors that badge,” Jones said of Zimmerman. “I can tell she does and she doesn’t want anybody on the force that dishonors that. So admitting that there’s a problem is very hard for her.”
Jones’ newfound clout with city leaders has allowed him to broaden his agenda.
He and the coalition want to roll back section 182.5 of the state’s Penal Code, which Jones and others argue unfairly targets young men in poor, largely black communities. That effort started when San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis charged a group of men under the law for a series of shootings that they didn’t actually take part in.
“[Section]182.5 in my opinion is the most imminent threat I’ve ever seen against communities of color, specifically black young men,” Jones said. “There’s 100-plus documented gang members in Lincoln Park. If you can go and wipe out all those people with one swipe of Bonnie’s pen, literally wipe out an entire neighborhood of young black men … To us, there is no bigger fight here in San Diego than this.”
In some ways, wading into the battle over 182.5 felt again like the heated but unguided days just after the Ferguson ruling – with Jones waiting for leaders in the black community to step forward and offer some direction.
Early on, he was warned by a friend that he wouldn’t get much help from pastors in the black community, often influential agents for their congregations. Instead, Jones took his case to the faith-based community organization San Diego Organizing Project. He invited Aaron Harvey, one of the men being charged under 182.5, to tell his story to SDOP.
“It wasn’t really until SDOP came in that the pastors got involved,” Jones said. “I feel like I shouldn’t have had to go to them, you know? That should’ve been something automatic.”
Meanwhile, Jones is waging another battle to overhaul San Diego’s Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices. The board, he says, lacks teeth in its current form. A better model, he believes, would be an independent review with subpoena power.
“That’s why we’ve been meeting with the City Council members to get their feel on it, let them see our faces on a regular basis, let them know this is important to us,” he said.
In both endeavors, Jones sees a fight to save San Diego.
“I really believe that San Diego is a ticking time bomb,” he said. “It could be the next Ferguson. There’s underlying racism here, and it’s not going away.”
He finds it frustrating that he hasn’t seen more action from the very communities he’s trying to empower.
“Maybe it’s not that they don’t care, it’s just they won’t make a stand,” he said. “Everything I was taught and how I was raised was, you stand up for your family, you stand up for the world.”