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BLM Organizer Tianna Arata Talks About Her 'Terrifying' Arrest and How Music Motivates Her Activism

Black Lives Matter protest California
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

The arrest of Black Live Matter organizer Tianna Arata in San Luis Obispo, Calif., on July 21 is drawing fire from some of the biggest names in hip-hop and entertainment who are expressing outrage at officials who want charges brought against the 20-year-old model and activist after she protested against long-standing complaints about racism in the criminal justice system.

“I'm out here advocating for people who don't have the ability to protest, who are too busy trying to work two jobs and provide for their kids,” Arata tells Billboard in one of her first interviews since her arrest on charges or vandalism, inciting a riot and felony criminal counts. Police claim protestors participating in the 300-person march attacked and damaged several vehicles during the protest, but witness accounts and video show that the activists were actually the target of several vehicles attempting to drive through their protest.

Attorneys for Arata say police are desperate to discredit the model and activist for challenging alleged systemic racism in the small coastal community, and her case has drawn the attention of a growing number of hip hop luminaries including rapper T.I. and his wife Tameka Tiny Harris, as well Trae tha Truth, actress Taraji P. Henson and social media influencer Sarah Baska, all of whom have spoken out in support of Arata who faces a potential jail sentence if convicted.

The potential charges center around two incidents that took place during the three-hour peaceful protest, according to police, media reports and eyewitness accounts. One involves an incident when protestors marched on to the 101 Freeway and stopped traffic. One car tried to push through the crowd and hit a protestor. In response several unidentified protestors began throwing objects at the car, breaking the rear window and allegedly causing glass to shower down on a four-year-old child in the back seat, police allege. An hour later, a second incident occurred at a city intersection with a car that appeared to drive into a group of protestors that included Arata. Police say that a 50-second video they released shows Arata hitting the car with a flag as it accelerated and drove into her and others.

San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell has reportedly asked District Attorney Dan Dow to charge Arata with four felony counts of false imprisonment and felony conspiracy, along with three misdemeanor accounts of resisting peace officers, starting a riot and unlawful assembly. The severity of the potential charges have outraged supporters, who say police have no basis to single her out for arrest for any of the charges.

(In a statement Aug. 10, Dow said his office had begun its review of the police department's recommendations for charges but did not list what they were. He also said it is "likely that additional investigation will be necessary before making a criminal filing decision" and that the D.A.'s office is "in communication with Ms. Arata’s defense counsel and will consider any evidence or information provided by her counsel in conjunction with the review." Dow also disputed claims across social media that Areta, who is not in police custody, faces 15 years in prison if tried and convicted, saying that "the charges referred" by the San Luis Obispo PD "are only eligible to be sentenced to a term in county jail, not state prison.")

“The police made a decision to arrest her and get her off the street because she was effective at what she was doing,” says Bay Area defense attorney Curtis Briggs, trial lawyer with the law firm Seville Briggs who successfully defended and won an acquittal for one of the two defendants in the deadly 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Briggs accuses the San Luis Obispo Police Department of making up charges after Arata after she had been arrested.

"Our investigation has already obtained witnesses to suggest that the police have been fabricating these charges, fabricating the vandalism and fabricating victims," Briggs says. "This may be one of the few protests in the nation where the organizers were fully cooperative and communicative with the police chief in real time. But because the police chief didn't like the message and that [Arata] was protesting and demonstrating against local police, she decided to retaliate."

(Billboard reached out to the San Luis Obispo police and were not provided with an on-the-record comment.)

Billboard was granted one of the first interviews with Arata, accompanied by Briggs, to discuss the case and learn about how music and culture motivate her activism and community work. An edited version of that conversation is below.

Had the police warned you not to stage this protest?

I actually got a text from the police chief the day before and the day of [the protest] wondering how many people [would attend] and how long the route would be. I had met with the police chief once before after we were tear gassed at a protest. We brought up the concerns of safety of the community and how tear gas was completely unnecessary. We met with her to ensure that wouldn't happen again.

Walk us through what happened next as the protest began.

We had our speeches during the day for about an hour with a crowd of about 300 people, and then we started to march. It was super positive and everybody was ecstatic to be out there because it has been so long since our last demonstration. The day before the protest, [San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson] made some super inflammatory remarks that he had never seen any indication that systemic racism exists in SLO County. That hit all of us incredibly hard. That's our local law enforcement who is supposed to be there to protect us and serve us and he's clearly showing blatant prejudice. He also said the only prejudice that he's ever experienced is when he's wearing a uniform. First off, I don't believe that. And secondly, you get to take off your uniform, you have chosen to play that role.

Tell me about the first time a vehicle drove into your group?

I was actually far away from this incident and didn’t witness it, but I was just told about what had happened afterwards by my friend who said that this man tried to drive through the group of protesters while we were on the freeway. He continuously accelerated and everybody else was able to step out of the way except for a friend of mine, and he ended up sprawled out on the hood of this gray sedan. He's continuously accelerating and somebody else had thrown a skateboard at the back of his windshield to get him to stop. It did break the glass. And later I found out potentially that there was a four year old in the backseat.

How did the protest end up on the freeway?

I don't know how it happened, but eventually everybody just started walking in that direction. It was basically just a group effort, amplifying opinions and I kept hearing “freeway, freeway, freeway” from people all over the crowd. And I think generally everybody just decided, alright, we're going onto the freeway. We don't set a route in advance, everything happens organically at these marches. I don't think a route is always the most constructive, because what if there is a change of opinion? It isn't just about me or where I want to go.

Tell me about what happened when you were arrested?

Once we got back to the park, most of the crowd had dispersed and about 10 of my close friends and family were still there. The police started boxing us in on the street that we were on. And then out of nowhere, these two big SUVs just sped up with their lights on, jumped out of the cars and six different cops headed straight for me. And they started grabbing me and touching me, pulling me across the street. They didn't ask me to identify myself. They never read me my rights. And it was terrifying. I didn't understand what the purpose of this was and why they specifically targeted me.

How long have been an activist?

I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, I started protesting following the death of Michael Brown [in 2014 inFerguson, Missouri]. I was 14 years old and I felt like I found a group who wholeheartedly accepted my weirdness -- I really appreciate weirdness and diversity in every form and facet. It was a culture shock when I moved to San Luis Obispo when I was 16. It's about 2% Black and some people haven't been exposed to the things that you're exposed to if you have lived in a bigger city.

A lot of people have reached out to you since your arrest. What kind of support have you received?

First of all, I just want to say I'm so grateful that hundreds of thousands of people have signed my petition and that's amazing. I was struggling to even try and get 10,000 signatures a couple of days ago and now a lot of musicians and Black figures in the media have been reaching out. Trae the Truth told me he was grateful for the work I was doing and being so adamant in letting me know, “We have your back. We're fighting for you”

How does music shape your activism?

I listen to a lot of rap and because I appreciate preserving Black culture. And I just really like Black artists who do talk about the struggles that they have faced can say, “Oh, look, now I've overcome it.” I really idolize female rappers like Megan Thee Stallion, and I like J Cole and Noname and Nipsey Hussle. Probably my favorite song right now is “Rodney King” by Six Sev. It's so powerful in the lyrics and just expressing the truth of what people really do face. So many of those express why these protests are so important. And I’m just so grateful to have the support of so many people right now.