Longtime Santa Monican LaVerne Ross has been the driving force behind the Santa Monica celebration. File photo.

Santa Monica’s Juneteenth celebration will be held online this year due to ongoing fears over the spread of COVID-19 and while the event’s organizer understands the need for safety, she is also keenly aware that the celebration marking the end of slavery is desperately needed this year.

The first local Juneteenth was a small celebration held at the Third Street Promenade 28 years ago. LaVerne Ross brought the event to Santa Monica and said it was a small, sparsely populated celebration but it has grown with the help of her Juneteenth Committee and Virginia Avenue Park to a large, uniting festival.

The term Juneteenth is a blend of the words June and nineteenth. The holiday has also been called Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day. The celebration started with the freed slaves of Galveston, Texas. Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863, it could not be enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War in 1865 with the final slaves being freed on June 19.

Ross said she understands why the event has become digital this year.

“With the protests and the virus, that happens to be something that we have to pay attention to with the social distancing and we certainly wouldn’t want anyone to catch it,” she said. “With this social distancing and being on the internet, that seems to address the protective part.”

While the 79-year old Ross has been confined to the house, she hasn’t been disconnected from the massive cultural shifts swirling around the nation and her passion to celebrate Juneteenth has an additional edge this year.

“I can appreciate so many people that are agreeing with Black Lives Matter,” she said. “As far as Juneteenth is concerned, I as the founder, I am certainly in favor of the protests and looking at the legal system and the justice system as far as the police are involved with the injustice.”

Ross said she doesn’t think every police officer is to blame but she is deeply disappointed that the discrimination against African Americans has persisted throughout all of her 79 years and while the ongoing killing of minorities by police causes her deep stress, she is motivated by the new wave of activism.

“We are in the middle of an additional revolution and that is with us battling to get justice,” she said.

“We pay money for the protection of people in America and we don’t expect that we are going to have to run and hide from our protectors. We want to continue to be protected as it’s our money that is spent or I’m in favor of the money being cut back or cut completely if we don’t get the justice we need through the police department.”

Ross said the size and scope of the modern protests are important to her.

“I’m totally disappointed with the fact that there are injustices in the police system but I’m happy to see the peaceful protests because I believe that silence is violence. Those that sit back in their homes and not protest verbally, I believe silence is violence, because something that is not said can be more dangerous than what is said.”

Ross had a son who died of an illness several years ago and she said she always prayed that nothing would happen to him because African American men have reason to fear even minor interactions with the police.

“Certainly I could see how some of them are running scared,” she said. “(The police) have the guns and handcuffs but it appears the men that have been murdered by the legal system and police force, it appears that the person they are detaining is at a disadvantage and to say that you resisted arrest when you have nothing to your defense, no gun, and the ones that are handcuffing you have guns and the back-up and you end up getting killed? I don’t understand that.”

She said individuals who encounter police are not always correct in their actions but they didn’t deserve to be killed for their actions. She compared the treatment to the very institution Juneteenth meant to celebrate the death of.

“We are revisiting slavery,” she said. “We were three fifths of a person, and these men, these people in 2020 and not just men are being treated as slaves were as three fifths of a human being.”

Despite her frustration, Ross is still looking forward to the celebration and she is hopeful the current momentum will grow Juneteenth to a national holiday.

“The great part about it is the young people in schools, students, are addressing the facts with this protest,” she said. “They are coming out in droves, wanting to combat the injustices all over America with African American people where we are stressing the fact that Black Lives Matter and it’s time for the Blacks to get the attention they need.”

Santa Monica’s Juneteenth event will be held on June 20 from 12 to 1:30 p.m.

The program will be emceed by community member Kathleen Benjamin and will include:

Traditional opening drum call performed by Chazz Ross.

Welcome and introduction prepared by founder LaVerne Ross and read by Kathleen Benjamin.

A panel discussion introduced by Eula Fritz, with presenters Dr. Kim R. Harris, Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University and Captain Darrick Jacob of the Santa Monica Police Department.

Musical performance by Aaron Nigel Smith presented in collaboration with The Broad Stage.

Visit https://bit.ly/juneteenthsm to join from a computer or install the app onto your mobile device at https://primetime.bluejeans.com/a2m/live-event/rtqzccdf.

The event code is: rtqzccdf

For questions, email vap@smgov.net or call (310) 458-8688.