VIP While Black: The True Story of a Black Woman’s Assault in the Liberal Town of Santa Cruz, CA
About a year ago, I bought myself VIP tickets to see the hip-hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony at the Catalyst Club in Santa Cruz, California. I invited my Eritrean homegirl Luwam to accompany me, but she was too busy. So, I went alone…
This concert was important to me for many reasons. Firstly, because the Grammy Award winning Bone Thugs-N-Harmony debuted as a fresh voice in hip-hop when I was in elementary school. I remember them vividly because they were so handsome, and each member was a different shade of brown. They dressed like thugs, but they had long natural hair, and they could harmonize and rap in a way that no one had ever heard before. They were also from Ohio, the birthplace and home state of my mom. My mother was a single mother university student with twins. And any child raised by a single parent beating the odds could relate to Bone Thugs’ song First of the Month. Not only was it a banger, but it also spoke to the realities of living from check to check, and needing food stamps (EBT cards) to make ends meet. Many days I watched my mom literally scrape coins together to make sure my twin-sister and I had everything we needed and wanted. The first of the month was when we could pretend for just a few days, that we weren’t stressed about lights being cut off, or enough food in the fridge. The first of the month was our time to temporarily live the American Dream. As a Cali born and bred woman, Bone Thugs’ music has always made me feel close to my midwest roots, and the perseverance it takes to rise through poverty and broken families.
Secondly, attending the concert was important because I was coming out of the mourning of losing my own twins. I miscarried twins by a man I deeply loved. The miscarraige was devastating (and it’s a story for a different day). I buried my twins with my family, and I mourned their loss for 6 months. Hence, treating myself to the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony concert was a joyful act of self-care. I was celebrating my recovery, and the precious life that God had put in my belly and returned to Heaven. I was letting go of a deep sadness, because I knew I would meet my twins again at the crossroads between the here and after.
I ordered a VIP balcony ticket online. The thought of being in the general admissions area was overwhelming because I deal with PTSD. I figured the VIP balcony section would be less triggering, safer, and more calm. I put my hair in what we now call ASAP Rocky braids, even though Bizzy Bone was the first to rock the natural single braids on fleek! I hit the door smelling like lemongrass-scented shea butter, and I made the 90 minutes drive to Santa Cruz in high spirits!
I arrived at the concert venue called The Catalyst. I showed my downloaded ticket to the box office, and was given a stamp on my wrist. As a beautiful Black womxn, I am accustomed to being racially profiled…so instinctively I asked if the stamp was all I needed to access the VIP balcony area. The manager of the venue happened to be working the box office, and he assured me the stamp was all I needed. He was a gentleman, and added, “I promise the stamp is all you need for VIP, but I’ll walk you to the entrance just so they don’t give you any trouble.”
I thought this was an interesting comment for him to make, but I didn’t overthink it, and appreciated him escorting me into the VIP entrance.
The timing of my entrance onto the VIP balcony was perfect…or so I thought. Bone Thugs had just started their set, and their voices were impeccable. I noticed I was the only Black womxn on the balcony, but it never crossed my mind that my Blackness and femininity would render me a target of violence. Subsequently, I allowed myself to be swept away by the sweet sounds of the concert.
I popped out my phone and recorded myself vibing at the concert. I intended to post it later on IG…but later never came. As soon as I put my phone into my pocket I felt someone push me hard in my back. I instantly turned around and there was a huge young white male security guard with thick black eyebrows hovering over me with the meanest scowl in his eyes. I was totally caught off guard because I was in the positive vibes of the music, and I didn’t understand why he was ramming me in my back. Now I am facing the security guard, and I am just staring at him with a look of “wtf” in my eyes. He then pushes me in my breast with his huge hands.
-“Don’t push me! What are you doing?”, I exclaim.
-“You can’t be here! This is VIP only!” the security guard irately screams.
I stoically replied, “I paid to be here and I’m not going anywhere. Do you want to see my ticket?”
-“You didn’t pay to be here, you need to go down stairs now! The balcony is for VIP only, you need a green wristband for VIP! Get your ass downstairs now!”
I couldn’t believe the physical aggression of the security guard. I couldn’t believe how he was cursing at me. And I couldn’t believe that I paid extra money for VIP only to be accused of stealing access. I had not been on the balcony a good 20 minutes, and some sh*t was already poppin off. I looked around, noticing again that I was the only Black woman in VIP. I also vigilantly looked at the other patrons’ wrists in VIP, and I didn’t see anyone with a green wristband.
I repeated to the security guard, “I paid to be here. I have the ticket and VIP stamp to prove it. The manager told me all I needed was this stamp, so I’m not moving downstairs.” Clearly this man did not know I have the genetic memory of Rosa Parks running through my veins. He thought his whiteness gave him the immutable authority to make me jump. And he thought my Blackness and gender made him entitled to a response of “how high”? He was gravely disappointed when I went all Rosa Parks on him.
I stood my ground like a true red-black-and-green blooded American. I paid to play just like all the men around me, and I wasn’t going anywhere. In return, the male security guard looked at me with the type of vitriol only woke liberal towns like Santa Cruz can produce. He coldly said,
-“If you don’t move, I’ll get someone who will make your ass move.” He then calmly walked away.
My response after he walked away demonstrates how naive I was about the impending danger to come. I simply turned back towards the stage and continued to enjoy the music. I knew Satan was just trying to kill my vibe, so I said to myself, “Not today Satan”!
Around five minutes later, I felt someone belligerently shoving my back again. I turned around and this time it was a white female security guard with bright blue hair pushing the crap out of me.
I turned to face her and stated, “Don’t push me!” The female security guard then pushed me in my breast while simultaneously retorting, “Get your fucking ass down stairs or I will take your ass down there myself.”
I stood my ground, and replied: “I’m not going anywhere, I paid to be here, and you need to keep your f*cking hands off of me!”
At that point, as though premeditated, both security guards began attacking me, punching me repeatedly in my face and skull. The male security guard forced my face into his crotch while stifling my breath with a brutal choke-hold. While in the choke-hold he pounded my face and skull repeatedly with his mammoth fists.
While being choked and punched by the male security guard, the female security guard began kicking me in my womb repeatedly.
I could not believe this was happening to me, and to make matters worse, I could not breathe. Was this truly happening to me in Santa Cruz, California? The capital of white people with dreadlocks and djembes?
As I was beginning to blackout from the choke-hold, I had two extremely vivid thoughts. The first thought was relief my twins were no longer in my belly to experience this brutal attack. Their due date would have been January 1, 2020, just a week after the concert. The second thought was the sweet face of Eric Garner. Despite the horror of the attack, the thought of Garner’s face brought me invaluable solace.
“This must be how Eric Garner felt. At least I am not alone in this feeling. I am going to die like Eric Garner…Wow, it’s so easy to die as a Black person.”
These were my last thoughts as I continued to black out and submit to my fate. Yet, suddenly I heard someone yelling, “Get off her! That’s a woman! Get off of her!”
The voice kept coming closer, and I felt strong arms trying to protect me from the blows of the security guards’ kicks and punches.
These strong arms manifested into an entire Black man who was using his body as a shield to protect me against the blows and kicks of the security guards. I will refer to this man as A for the duration of the story. There were many men of diverse colors on the VIP balcony that night, but A was the only man willing to save my life.
The first thing A did was protect me from the woman security guard kicking me in the womb. He did this by squeezing his body between me and the male security guard who had me in a chokehold. With A in between, the woman’s steel toe boots were no longer able to reach my womb. The second thing A did was pry the male security guards thick arms from around my neck. This was no easy task, because the male security guard was dead set on choking me until my body went completely limp. A finally wrestled his arms from around my neck, but the security guard was still throwing blows of punches to my face and skull…ramming his knuckles into my temples and eye sockets.
Once A finally loosened the security guard’s chokehold, I immediately gasped for air and flung my entire face into A’s chest, so as to be shielded from more blows. The security guard became more incensed, and began punching me harder in my head while my face was shielded in A’s chest.
Determined to protect me, A swooped me up and placed me over his shoulder like a firefighter, carrying me down the stairs and outside to safety.
I thanked A for saving my life and immediately called Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD). While on hold with SCPD, A explained how he and his girlfriend had been watching me since I stepped in because they were concerned for me being out in Santa Cruz at night by myself. He explained that he and his partner witnessed the initial harassment and assault. I relayed to A how the security guards were saying I needed a green wrist-band to be on the VIP balcony. A, who was also in VIP, shook his head in disbelief. A showed me his wrist; he only had a VIP stamp. Neither A or his girlfriend had the mysterious green wrist band the security officers were yelling about.
The cops finally came on the phone-line, and I reported the assault. Luckily, A and his partner never left my side. I later came to discover they are both nurses, and their desire to protect people extends beyond the hospital. As we stood waiting for the police to arrive, A’s girlfriend recounted that she would never leave a Black woman alone with SCPD. I was so thankful God had blessed me with these two angels who were aware of the true social injustice underpinnings of this superficially liberal town. I told A’s girlfriend that I had been coming to Santa Cruz since I was a kid with my father, and my ex used to live in the area, so I would travel to Santa Cruz often. But this was the first time I was in Santa Cruz alone, and I was definitely treated different.
The cops and paramedics finally arrived, but things only became worse for me. The paramedics performed an assessment, and offered to take me to the hospital. But the police were rude, callous, patronizing, and racist.
Not once did the police even produce a pen and paper to take notes of the account of my attack. They scoffed at my experience, and repeatedly asked,
“Are you drunk…Are you sure you want to press charges”?
My license was confiscated for about an hour, and the officers continued to accuse me of being intoxicated. I was adamant about not having had a single drink. But the officers were relentless in their accusations. Here I was the victim, being treated like an assailant.
I asked for my driver’s license back. I told the officers I wanted to drive myself to the hospital and needed my license returned. An Asian officer then said, “I can’t give you your license back, you have been drinking, and I can smell the alcohol on you.” This was a sheer lie, but my spirit was so broken at this point.
This is when A spoke out, and said, “You are lying! You are saying that with your body camera on because you are intentionally trying to discredit her as a victim! This is pure racism!”
I demanded the police provide a breathalyzer test, so they could verify I was totally sober. But they refused to administer a breathalyzer. At this point, I just accepted the structural racism I was experiencing from the very people who pledge to “protect and serve.” The police were relentless in their attempts to persuade me against filing charges. One of the white officers stated,
-“Why don’t you just forget about this whole thing? If you file charges, the security guards are going to file charges against you too”!
-“I want to file charges, I am a victim, and stop trying to talk me out of it”.
A was infuriated with the treatment I was receiving, and he and his girlfriend promised not to leave my side until my license was returned and I left for the hospital. I looked at A with so much love in my heart. I felt so powerless and deflated. But I was thankful A and his girlfriend had not abandoned me once the police arrived…I was so naive to believe the police would help. All the police did was further traumatize me. Despite having a bruised and bloodied face, SCPD treated me as though I was a criminal. When they took the statements of my attackers, they gave them high-fives right in front of my face, and casually laughed with them. It was all a joke to my assailants and the SCPD.
I went on to be treated for my injuries at Dominican Hospital because it was the closest hospital to the concert venue. A’s girlfriend warned me about going to Dominican Hospital.
“Are you sure you want to go to Dominican Hospital? They have a reputation for being racist”.
I told her I had no other choice because I needed to be treated by the closest hospital. Unfortunately at Dominican Hospital I was treated by a brown Desi doctor who had no understanding of trauma informed care, and who shamed me for being a victim of violence. I asked this young physician for an MRI to assess for possible injuries to my brain, but he refused. Hence, I was not able to have my head assessed for injuries until returning to Oakland, where I was diagnosed with contusions and a traumatic brain injury. Before the night was over, A’s girlfriend told me,
-“Santa Cruz locals know the Catalyst is not a safe place to come alone as a Black woman”.
Upon returning home, my family and co-workers were horrified by what happened to me. Many people at work began to ask me if I was experiencing domestic violence, because they did not understand why I had bruised black eyes.
My mother began to perform extensive research on the Catalyst Club, and one day she sent me several screenshots of womxn and men exposing the racist, sexist, and violent practices of the Catalyst Club and its security guards.
Here are just a few of many anonymized reviews, illustrating the rampant racist and sexist treatment by The Catalyst Club security guards. A Google search of the club will reveal a litany of reviews underscoring the incredulous racist and sexist violence against innocent patrons.
I am forever thankful to A who saved my life, and A’s girlfriend who made it her business to keep an eye out for me during the concert because she noticed I was alone. A and his partner could have easily ignored the violence happening against me, but instead they made it their business to stop a violent act against a womxn.
A put his own life in danger to protect me. Standing up against violence perpetrated by individuals in uniforms is daunting, but A still made it his business to save my life.
Obviously everyone does not have the physicality or instinct to protect at this level, but the point is to do WHAT YOU CAN to protect womxn. Violence against womxn is deplorable in all forms. And though there were many people in the VIP balcony watching me get assaulted, only one man physically intervened to save my life, and only one womxn verbally intervened to speak up for me.
All forms of violence against womxn are abhorrent, and violence against Black womxn sometimes happens without anyone caring at all…because somehow violence against Black womxn has become normalized. Maybe it is because this country and its laws were built on the violence of Black and Indigenous womxn. Thankfully there are people who understand that violence against womxn is never normal, and complicity to violence is a maladaptive response to the myth of white male supremacy. Belief in protecting Black womxn and all womxn is essential for our world to heal.
Lastly, I state the ethnicities of everyone involved in the conspiracy of racism and sexism against my personhood NOT because I am trying to point fingers, but because I want to highlight how structural racism is beyond black and white. Racism is a social psychosis protracted by all colors, genders, sexes, and abilities. It’s a virus that has killed more people than COVID-19, and we all need to be vaccinated against its lethal doctrine.
Thank you A for saving my life.
Note: It took SCPD over 6 months to complete the police report on my behalf. I requested it thrice and was denied. My father called for it twice and was denied. Ultimately, my politician aunt in Southern California wrote a letter to Santa Cruz District Attorney’s Office sprinkled with a few choice words…only then was the police report haphazardly completed and released. And once complete, it was written in favor of the security guards, listing me as the suspect. Yes, the victim who called the police with a bruised and bloodied face was listed as the suspect. A and his girlfriend gave their statements the night of my attack, and even submitted additional written witness statements and complaints regarding my treatment by SCPD directly to SCPD headquarters the very next day. But there was no amount of truth that could sway the racial bias of SCPD. Because of this I was denied health coverage by California’s Victims of Crime program. And because SCPD took over 6 months to release the police report, I could not seek litigation against SCPD for any unjust handling of my case (the statute of limitations for pursuing a claim against a government entity or employee via a 910 claim in California is 6 months).
Below is a picture of just one of the witness statements submitted on my behalf to SCPD:
I am a survivor. And I know I would have died, if it had not been for A who saved my life.
Hollaback! is a global, people-powered movement to end harassment. Visit bit.ly/dontjuststandthere to learn more about their bystander intervention strategies and trainings. If you are a bystander to violence take action! Use your cellphone, your voice, your wheelchair, your bodies, your mind, and your agency to protect lives!
This true story was co-written and produced by Kulwa Apara and Laura East. Images illustrated by the lovely and gracious Britney Walker. Special thanks to Erin Delsol and Afuthal Ssemakula, two nurses who saved Kulwa’s life, and helped make this project possible. Kulwa believes Afuthal was an angel sent by God, and she is forever grateful to Afuthal and Erin for making it their business to care for and protect an unknown Black womxn.
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