California Rebels: Protesters face off with cops at capitol as they demand freedom


In the most intense protest yet against California’s stay-at-home order, demonstrators crowded the west steps of the Capitol on Friday and scuffled with California Highway Patrol officers who had ordered them to disperse. At least three protesters were detained during the demonstration, which lasted about four hours.

The protest by several hundred people — some holding American flags and signs calling for the economy to reopen — started peacefully but quickly escalated when CHP officers ordered them to leave the steps of the landmark downtown Sacramento building or face arrest.

Some demonstrators got within a few inches of officers’ faces, screaming that their rights to assemble were being violated and calling officers “traitors” for defending the government’s orders to restrict gatherings at schools, businesses and churches.

The protest was in direct violation of both Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and a CHP ban on protests on state property, the latter prompted by a crowded demonstration at the Capitol a week ago.

Nonetheless, CHP officers initially allowed throngs of demonstrators to enter the Capitol grounds. Without riot gear, they mingled with the crowds and offered friendly reminders to maintain social distancing. Few who descended on the grounds wore masks or observed the 6-foot protocols that have been in place since the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Protest started peacefully

Although the protest was scheduled to begin at noon, dozens of people were on the Capitol grounds before 10 a.m. Port-a-potties were set up on the sidewalk and a truck was mounted with large speakers blaring country songs and other music. Steel fencing was set up around the entrance to the steps, but pathways to the steps were left open and people were moving about freely.

The demonstration was orderly at the start: At least 500 cars, trucks, motorcycles, RVs and vans were circling the Capitol, honking horns, waving flags — American flags, banners for Trump and the Gadsden flag that reads “Don’t Tread on Me” — in a procession so clogged it took nearly an hour to circle the complex and forced Sacramento Regional Transit to re-route buses.

Protesters selling Trump T-shirts set up shop on the sidewalk, assembling makeshift merchandise stores of fold-out tables lined with red “Make America Great Again” hats. Families sunbathed on the lawn, with children in strollers and teenagers holding signs urging schools to reopen and graduation ceremonies to continue.

Many carried signs claiming the virus was a government hoax to inspire fear and submission. Other demonstrators acknowledged the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic but said they needed the freedom to return to work.

“We are 100 percent willing and able to go back to work with precautions and with greater restrictions, but we need to go back to work,” said Jennifer Erin Freitas, a nurse and aesthetician. “Our government is killing our economy.”

A sudden change in tone

Tensions started to mount when hundreds of protesters began congregating on the Capitol’s west steps. Within minutes, CHP officers formed a defensive perimeter around the Capitol’s entrance, holding their batons horizontally and prompting jeers from the crowd. An officer with a loudspeaker then read a statement, citing health and safety codes , ordering them to disperse or face arrest.

A handful of protesters broke through a line of CHP officers guarding the Capitol. Officers formed a line and were able to move the hostile crowd away from the building. Some in the crowd chanted “remember your oath” to officers. One woman could be heard yelling “traitors” to officers. Another shouted into a megaphone, “President Trump, we need you.”

It wasn’t immediately clear why the CHP officers, after allowing the demonstrators onto the grounds, then decided they had to leave. Officials with the CHP’s Capitol detail couldn’t be immediately reached for comment; a spokesman at the agency’s state headquarters deferred questions to the unit’s information officer.

Small, isolated scuffles broke out as protesters yelled “our house” and “open up” at the officers. They began demanding cops to abandon their post and “remember your oath.”

At least three people who tried to cross police lines were pulled away and detained. Several other people were pulled from the crowd as well. Among them was Heidi Munoz Gleisner of the group Freedom Angels; Gleisner is a familiar figure at the Capitol for participating in anti-vaccination protests.

Within the span of 20 minutes, officers in riot gear — wearing heavy-duty helmets with shields and face masks beneath, as well as protective vests and leggings — used long batons to push the crowd back. They told demonstrators they weren’t impeding their First Amendment rights.

CHP officers were able to move the crowd 25 feet away from the building, and another standoff ensued for about a half hour or so. Then officers flanking the protesters on three sides issued a “final warning” and began to push the crowd back again. The crowd started booing, with one chanting into a megaphone, “We have a right to assemble,” but they slowly moved away, one step at a time.

Within about a half hour, around half of the protesters had been pushed off the Capitol grounds to the sidewalk on 10th Street. Many began leaving the demonstration altogether as a group of CHP officers stood shoulder-to-shoulder by the giant planters near the sidewalk.

Even as the demonstration waned, many protesters meandered on the fringes. At one point, they shouted at the officers, warning them that they were in danger of trampling a woman who was breastfeeding an infant on the lawn.

“This is tyranny,” said Stefanie Fetzer, a San Clemente woman who organized last week’s protest. “They didn’t have to do this. We would have been gone by now.”

Permit not issued

Promoted online by websites advocating an end to the governor’s March 19 stay-at-home order, the demonstration was one of several planned for Friday in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Huntington Beach, Ventura and San Diego by groups advocating for a return to work and school.

A similar protest took place at the Capitol on April 20 with the blessing of the CHP, which issued a permit and handled set-up logistics despite the ban on large gatherings by the governor and regional law enforcement agencies.

But following questions about why the permit was issued for the protest, which featured about 500 demonstrators circling the Capitol in vehicles and cramming together near the west steps to listen to speakers, the CHP announced it would no longer issue such permits.

“Permits are issued to provide safe environments for demonstrators to express their views,” the CHP said in a statement following the governor’s assertion that he believed the protest was to be held from cars in a convoy. “In this case, the permit for the convoy was issued with the understanding that the protest would be conducted in a manner consistent with the state’s public health guidance.

“That is not what occurred, and CHP will take this experience into account when considering permits for this or any other group.”

The agency added that “effective immediately the California Highway Patrol will deny any permit requests for events or activities at all state facilities, to include the State Capitol, until public health officials have determined it is safe to gather again.”

That policy generated a federal civil rights lawsuit against the governor and the CHP, as well as criticism from constitutional scholars who said it went too far.

The CHP never specified how it planned to handle the protest, which originally was billed as one featuring vehicles circling the Capitol but later included plans for a march and calls for demonstrators to board buses to the Capitol.

Instead, the agency only said Thursday night it was “unable to approve permits” for the demonstration and “will have resources available to take the appropriate action as necessary.”

Several California groups call for protests

There were several Facebook groups calling for protests around California on Friday. The largest of them, “Reopen California,” has an upside-down American flag as its background image on its page and 131,000 members.

The group featured live feeds Friday from protesters at the capitol as well as at protests in Southern California. On the page’s “about” section is a link to a website, ineedtogotowork.com, which contained a single page and a form where people could sign up for alerts. The page presented statistics that attempted to show the number of COVID-19 deaths as being inconsequential.

“We are a non-political group of citizens who believe our rights are being violated,” the site says. “We want to go back to work in order to support our lives and the lives of our families.

“We think it’s time to get back to work California, for those who do not fall into the High Risk category. It’s my body and should be my choice to work. All work is essential and Shelter In should be a choice that every American Citizen should make on their own.”

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Elsewhere around the country, similar protests have been criticized for being organized by secretive political organizations. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the “Operation Gridlock” protests at the capitol last month were organized by the Michigan Freedom Fund, which has received backing in the past from the DeVos Family’s Amway empire. Betsy DeVos is Trump’s education secretary.”

“I also would just say, I think it is this group is funded in large part by the DeVos family and I think it’s really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president’s cabinet to be waging political tax on any governor, but obviously on me here at home,” Whitmer told reporters last month. “I think that they should disavow it and encourage people to stay home and be safe.”

While no official group has claimed to be behind California’s protests, they have received some legal support from the conservative Center for American Liberty, whose lawyers sued the Newsom administration this week for no longer issuing protest permits at the Capitol.

“At a time when Californians are rightfully questioning the duration and extent of the stay at home orders, which are unevenly enforced and which have resulted in other Constitutional challenges, Governor Newsom has reacted to citizen protests not by addressing widespread concern, but simply by shutting down protest at the Capitol altogether, making no reasonable accommodations for this fundamental function in a free society,” Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet Dhillon said in a statement.

The protests came on May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, which traditionally celebrates laborers and the working class. Such demonstrations in the Bay Area were not on foot, but in parades of cars. Also, workers from Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart and Walmart, among others, were striking in some spots around the nation over the lack of protections on the job and sick pay during the pandemic.

There were also separately planned rent strikes from tenants rights groups and community nonprofits in cities including New York and Los Angeles, calling for leaders to cancel rent during the crisis.

‘We’re responsible adults’

Fetzer, the woman from San Clemente, left home at midnight to ride one of two chartered buses for the event. She recalled being shocked at securing the permit for last week’s protest from the CHP.

“I thought I’d won the lottery,” she said as she stood on the Capitol west steps a few feet from eight CHP officers watching from the steps.

“I think its time for us to send a message to Gov. Newsom that he needs to roll back this shutdown,” she said. “We’ve gotten to the point where the economy’s going to suffer, I have friends facing homelessness, business lost that will never recover.”

“People are suffering, I read something yesterday that the suicide hotline had seen an 1,800 percent increase in calls. So we know poverty kills. It’s time for us to weigh both factors now, it’s time for us to get back to work.”

Fetzer said her husband, a software developer, is hurting because of the slowed economy and that a friend who owns a now-shuttered hair salon is suffering because of the $5,000 a month rent.

“He can’t pay the rent with no haircuts, so he’s looking at shutting down,” she said as her 8-year-old son, Jerry, stood nearby.

Fetzer emphasized that the protesters are being responsible.

“We’re not advocating for people to go out and lick other people,” she said. “We’re responsible adults. We can interact and be safe.”

Newsom says demonstrate ‘safely’

Minutes before the demonstration ratcheted up, Newsom said during his daily COVID-19 briefing that he would defer to the CHP on crowd control, and said he welcomed protest as long as it is done with social distancing. He encouraged protesters to take precautions to protect themselves and others, including wearing masks.

“I’m passionate about participatory democracy,” he said. “All I ask is, just do it safely.”

Newsom, who has faced pressure from elected officials in rural counties to relax or rescind his order, said he would tell the protesters this: “You don’t want to contract this disease. This disease doesn’t know if you’re a protester, a Democrat, a Republican … so protect yourself, protect your family… your friends, your neighbors, people that you’re protesting with. That’s all I would say to them, and thank them for their expression of free speech.”

Newsom says he is now preparing to significantly loosen his stay at home order to reopen some businesses “within many days” rather than weeks. But that timeline could be pushed back if large groups of people congregate and spread the virus.

Although 91 people died in the last 24 hours in California, he said hospitalizations and ICU admissions are stable.

“We can screw all that up, we can set all that back by making bad decisions,” he said. “We could start to see a spread again, and so that’s the only thing that will set us back.”

A mixture of signs denouncing the stay-at-home order blended with signs lauding Trump and demanding Newsom’s impeachment. Many demonstrators wore red-white-and-blue outfits and carried American flags.

Kristine Cardozo, an ayurvedic health practitioner, stood on the steps wearing her blue medical scrubs, a stethoscope around her neck and no mask or gloves.

Cardozo said she drove up Thursday from Burbank for the protest because the shutdown has hurt her ability to see patients, much less touch them as part of her work, and that she does not believe the coronavirus crisis is as dire as some have described.

“Health care workers have to feed their families, too, and all across the country they’re being furloughed out of hospitals,” she said. “Nobody’s coming in and these people are coming home having to get on unemployment as well.”

Wisti Quenneville, 56, a self-employed hairdresser and fitness coach who lives in Danville lost both jobs, and state unemployment insurance hasn’t filled the financial gap, she said. She said the stay-at-home order initially made sense, especially because of the epidemics unfolding in places like Italy and New York City.

Her frustration in recent weeks is that her work might not return for weeks or even months under Newsom’s incremental plan to reopen.

“We did it. Now let’s gently insert ourselves to the old world,” she said Friday, across the street from the main protest.

If a surge in infections or deaths followed a reopening now, she said she’d “be happy to shut back down.” Friday’s protest at the Capitol was the first demonstration she’d ever joined and overall she was surprised by how peaceful it was — until police filed out of the building and began moving protesters back.

“It was like the freaking hunger games,” she said.

Andrew Smith attended with his 3-year-old daughter, Riley Jo, to “have our voices heard.”

“You can point to data all you want,” said Smith, who said it didn’t matter millions of people were at risk of getting sick or dying. “You still can’t take away civil liberties.

“It’s simple. If you’re afraid of it stay home.”

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