Tasha Williams speaks at a protest over the death of Earl McNeil. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

You may not know Tasha Williamson, but there’s a better chance you know the people she’s helped lift into the spotlight.

Victor Ortega. Alfred Olango. Earl McNeil.

All are dead.

As co-founder of the San Diego Compassion Project, Williamson comforts family members who’ve lost loved ones to police violence and directs them to whatever resources they may need in those dark moments. Most of that occurs behind the scenes. In public, she’s often the first to bang the drum, and her drum rings loudest.

Williamson is what some officials derisively call an “agitator,” and she seems to welcome the attack. She’s also a capable and effective spokesperson for neighborhoods of color, organizing press conferences, sometimes several in the course of a single week — and then stepping aside, so others can talk.

Williamson has been engaged in this type of public activism for years and she’s been recognized for it repeatedly. But she took her work to another level in 2018.

On May 26, Earl McNeil, a mentally ill black man, approached the National City police station. He was high and talking gibberish and struggled with officers. Police put him in a restraining device and eventually he stopped breathing, falling into a coma. His family took him off life support about two weeks later.

Outraged, Williamson mobilized other activists. Together, they disrupted several public meetings over the summer, demanding that more information about McNeil’s death be released to the public, including police body camera footage.

National City officials refused, and several responded with disdain, which only heightened the tension. Williamson and others were arrested at one meeting in June. The following month, they were greeted outside City Hall by a small army of police in riot gear.

In September, a medical examiner’s report listed the cause of McNeil’s death — brought on by meth, agitation and respiratory compromise — as a “homicide” but concluded that the officers had not intended to cause harm. The district attorney’s office cleared the law enforcement personnel who came into contact with McNeil of criminal liability.

Months of unrest weren’t for nothing. The pressure clearly took a toll on National City Police Chief Manny Rodriguez.

Last month, the Union-Tribune reported, Rodriguez announced his retirement.

This is part of our 2018 Voice of the Year list, profiling the people who kick-started San Diego’s biggest civic discussions over the past year.

Jesse Marx

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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