Hundreds of protesters came to the California’s state Capitol on Thursday for another demonstration against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus stay-at-home order, but this time they couldn’t get onto the grounds.
Six days after 32 people were arrested at a boisterous rally on the downtown landmark’s steps, the protesters were met by steel barriers ringing the west end of the property — the spot where the rally was supposed to be held — and about 200 California Highway Patrol officers in helmets and masks patrolling the grounds. The CHP has banned all protests on property for the time being.
Although the east side of Capitol Park was left open, the demonstrators settled for a peaceful rally on the sidewalk along the west side in what was billed as “A National Day of Prayer — Building Bridges.” They took communion, blasted Newsom’s stewardship of the coronavirus pandemic and literally offered an olive branch to the CHP officers standing guard, saying they were just carrying out Newsom’s orders.
Sacramento Police said late Thursday that no one was arrested in the demonstrations.
Newsom “is going to continue being the wicked man he is,” said one of the rally’s leaders, Tim Thompson, a conservative pastor from Riverside County, as he addressed the throng. “I pray against Gavin Newsom and what he’s doing to you men and women in blue.”
The crowd of about 300 was largely a mix of President Donald Trump supporters, anti-vaccination protesters and others simply demanding that Newsom roll back his stay-at-home order. Few wore masks or practiced social distancing. The rally was organized by Freedom Angels, an anti-vaccination group that has frequently protested at the Capitol over the past three years.
“Please, sir, we have the right to work,” read one sign. “Open California now,” read another.
Some demonstrators waved American flags; at least one brought a pro-police Blue Lives Matter flag. Sarah, a woman from Placerville who identified herself as a police officer’s wife, said she was praying for the CHP officers who were having to enforce improper orders on the Capitol grounds.
“It’s not fair to put our officers in the middle of it,” said Sarah, who wouldn’t give her last name.
Descending from the back of a pickup truck that served as an event stage, Thompson carried an olive tree in a terra cotta pot to the fence line and appealed for one of the officers to come forward and accept the tree.
“This is a sign of peace, a sign of unity,” he said. He contrasted the goodness of the CHP officers with “those dark forces” inside the Capitol building.
But none of the officers would come within 25 feet of the fence line, and the tree was left on the sidewalk. Retaking the stage a few minutes later, Thompson addressed the officers again.
“I know this: Many of you wanted to come up and take that olive tree,” the pastor said, before having communion bread and grape juice distributed to the demonstrators.
‘Our rights and freedoms’
Arriving shortly after 8 a.m., some on a chartered bus from Southern California, demonstrators were dismayed to see the CHP officers in riot gear blocking the west lawn.
“We’re being treated like we’re criminals,” complained Maxi Greenwood, a protester who rode from San Diego, as she eyed the CHP officers in riot gear. She added that demonstrators “are here to stand up for our rights and freedoms.”
Greenwood said she is a member of Freedom Angels, who applied for a permit to stage Thursday’s rally on the Capitol grounds. No permit was granted, in line with the CHP’s ban on protests on state property.
“You’re warring against the people,” one woman shouted at the officers guarding the west perimeter.
Nearby, a U-Haul truck was parked, displaying a banner with a swastika and a likeness of Newsom sporting a Hitler mustache. In an interview before the rally started, Thompson defended the banner, comparing Newsom’s lockdown of the economy to Hitler’s claims that he was closing off German society to protect its citizens.
“How many times were the people in Nazi Germany told, ‘This is for your safety,’” said Thompson, who was among those detained and cited at the Capitol last week. “This isn’t for our safety, this is for our control. They’re trying to control us.”
Thompson also questioned the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “The numbers aren’t adding up.” The state Department of Public Health says 58,815 coronavirus cases and 2,412 deaths have been confirmed.
On their permit application with the CHP, organizers specifically referred to the arrests at last Friday’s event. The application said Newsom — not the CHP — “will be held accountable.”
“The Thin Blue Line was blurred on May 1st, 2020, when the Governor gave an order for CHP officers to hold the line, push law abiding citizens off of Capitol grounds and forcefully arrest women, children, disabled men and pastors who were peacefully protesting the Governor’s unconstitutional executive order,” the application states. “Even when facing heavy handed tactics from California Highway Patrol Officers, the people remained peaceful.”
Last week’s protest drew an estimated 1,000 demonstrators. CHP officers allowed them to wander on the west lawn at first, despite their lack of permit, and did little more than urge them to practice social distancing.
The demonstration turned tense when many of the protesters climbed the Capitol steps. A phalanx of CHP officers, many in riot gear, pushed the protesters back.
Multiple scuffles ensued and 32 people were led away. The officers gradually drove the remaining protesters completely off the lawn and onto the sidewalk.
Lawsuit challenges CHP protest ban
The CHP ban has been denounced as legally questionable by some constitutional scholars, and is being challenged in court. At the same time the demonstrators were rallying on the sidewalk outside the Capitol, lawyers trying to overturn the ban pressed a federal judge in Sacramento for a temporary restraining order that would force the CHP to resume handing out protest permits.
After a two-hour telephone hearing, however, U.S. District Judge John A.. Mendez said he probably wouldn’t issue a restraining order. But because of the sensitive constitutional issues raised in the suit, Mendez said the case could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The lawsuit doesn’t end here,” the judge said.
The suit was filed by two Sacramento residents — Ron Givens, a gun rights advocate, and Christine Bish, a Republican candidate for Congress — who both say they were denied permits for events at the Capitol under the ban.
“The United States and California Constitutions do not contain blanket exceptions for pandemics, and neither may California’s lawmakers ignore fundamental Constitutional norms on the basis of a health crisis,” they argued in a court filing. “In an overreaching response to the coronavirus pandemic, at a time when people of conscience around the world have a greater need than ever to oversee, comment on, and speak out against governing bodies, Defendants have criminalized public demonstrations, rallies, and protests across California.”
But state officials argue they are violating no one’s rights and the state is enveloped in a crisis.
“Although Plaintiffs would be entitled to hold such rallies in normal times, these are not normal times,” lawyers for the state wrote in a court filing. “California is currently engulfed by COVID-19, a highly infectious and frequently deadly virus that already has infected over one million Americans and killed over 60,000.
“Because this virus has a long incubation period and may be spread unknowingly by individuals with no symptoms, many mass gatherings have been transformed into ‘super-spreader’ events, in which individuals with the virus inadvertently infect other individuals at the event, those individuals subsequently infect still others not present at the event, and so on.”
The CHP official in charge of issuing such permits, Capt. Douglas Lyons, also argued in a court filing that his agency was acting consistent with the finding by the California Department of Public Health that “all gatherings should be postponed.”
“CHP applies this temporary policy to all permit applications for gatherings regardless of the sponsor of the gathering, that sponsor’s viewpoint or anything else connected to the content of the gathering,” he wrote.
He added that the CHP’s decision to issue a permit for the April 20 event was made only after being assured by organizers that most attendees would remain in their vehicles as they circled the Capitol in a convoy and that those who made it to the Capitol grounds would wear protective masks and stand at least 6 feet apart.
That did not happen. Hundreds bunched together to listen to speeches and music. Few wore masks and some attendees accused media members wearing masks of “fear mongering.” The ban was imposed a few days later.
Thursday’s protest came as Newsom begins reopening selected portions of the economy, at the same time his administration tries to crack down on businesses that have been flouting his order. Many brick-and-mortar retailers will be allowed to reopen Friday, although malls have been excluded, the governor said.
Meanwhile, agents from California Alcoholic Beverage Control visited multiple restaurants in Yuba and Sutter counties Wednesday, telling them to shut down. Those two counties have allowed restaurants to reopen for in-house dining, in defiance of Newsom’s stay-at-home order. Hair salons have also reopened. The Yuba Sutter Mall in Yuba City reopened Wednesday, also a violation of the statewide order.
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