SANTA MONICA, Calif. - On a sliver of sand that before the Civil Rights era was derisively dubbed “The Ink Well” because of its popularity among black people, hundreds of surfers gathered to honor the life of George Floyd and other African Americans killed by police.
The occasion Friday was a paddle out, a Hawaiian tradition to celebrate a life and mourn its passing, organized by Black Girls Surf to share the pain they are feeling with devotees of a sport that has not always welcomed them.
“This speaks so much more to people because if you think about black girls surfing in the ocean, people are like, ‘Ha, ha, you don’t surf,’” Sayuri Blondt said. “But when you see everyone coming out to support us, it sends a message in a very unusual way and catches people’s attention.”
More than 200 surfers of all ages and races paddled through a set of crashing waves under cloudy skies to form a massive circle near the Santa Monica Pier, where they chanted Floyd’s name nine times to mark the nearly nine minutes prosecutors say his neck was pinned to the ground under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
They also sang “Happy Birthday” in memory of Breonna Taylor, who was shot in March by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers and would have turned 27 Friday.
Panpan Wang, who had “Black Lives Matter” written in marker on his back and Floyd and Taylor’s names across his chest, said he became emotional floating in the water while thinking of how they died.
“I was very aware of my body, feeling cold and trying to remember everybody and what their bodies went through,” Wang said. “I just wanted to feel. I’m trying to lean into the pain and suffering and not shy away from it.”
Giovanni Douresseau, who grew up in South LA and was nearly arrested his first time surfing after being mistaken as a criminal, told his fellow surfers that his heart broke at Floyd’s death. Video of Floyd in handcuffs saying he couldn’t breathe reminded him of the way he had seen uncles and a brother treated by police.
“We don’t just see George Floyd. We see us,” Douresseau told the crowd before they hit the water.
The event held at beaches around the world was organized by Rhonda Harper, who founded Black Girls Surf to help bring others like herself to the sport. Surfing has not traditionally welcomed black people, and Harper, who dreamed of being a pro surfer at 15, had no one to look to for inspiration.
She has often felt her white surfer friends don’t understand her anguish when she posts about police killings on social media.
“There’s a lack of awareness and empathy in the surf community when things like this happen,” Harper said. “I have a lot of white surf friends who don’t get it or are so privileged that they don’t have to mourn the loss of a black life. They’re talking about waves being beautiful and there being too much negativity in the world.”
Paddle outs were held in Dakar, Senegal, and Galveston, Texas, as well as Australia. On a beach in Biarritz, France, surfers spelled the word unity with their surfboards. At Huntington Beach, known as Surf City USA, south of LA, they grabbed daisies and sunflowers from buckets labeled unity, solidarity and peace to drop in the water. A small group of kayakers in New Jersey held a moment of silence on the Hackensack River.
The Santa Monica event was held at a beach commemorated with a plaque noting its importance as a place where African Americans could avoid racial harassment even after beaches were desegregated in 1927.
It came less than a week after Floyd’s death inspired a protest a few blocks from the beach that was overshadowed by damage, break-ins and thefts nearby.
“We wanted to turn the tables on all that violence,” Harper said. “It’s better than going into Patagonia and stealing surfboards. It’s the opposite of what’s going on there.”