Summer Stephan on Tuesday suggested that “movements” were behind rioters who piggybacked local Black Lives Matter protests in May and June.

Not specifying those involved, the San Diego County district attorney said: “We’ve seen where there’s the peaceful protest and all of a sudden another group shows up without license plates, with generators and water, and there’s not good things that are happening.”

Addressing the annual bench-bar-media forum — held remotely due to the pandemic — Stephan said much taking place “behind the scenes” is not pretty.

From top to bottom, left to right: Judge Dwayne Moring, Judge Lorne Alksne, Andrea St. Julian, Summer Stephan, Adam Racusin and Dana Littlefield.
From top to bottom, left to right: Judge Dwayne Moring, Judge Lorne Alksne, Andrea St. Julian, Summer Stephan, Adam Racusin and Dana Littlefield.

“Somebody talked about subverting the truthful nature of the protesters, and that is going on,” she told an online audience of more than 300. “There are movements that are not what you would think of.”

What evidence does Stephan have of “movements” that presumably incited arson, looting and other criminal acts following La Mesa and San Diego protests?

“There’s nothing more we can share on this,” district attorney spokeswoman Tanya Sierra said Wednesday.

Stephan’s remarks followed a question by Judge Dwayne Moring, the Superior Court judge moderating the 100-minute event that also included two local journalists, the presiding judge of Superior Court and a social justice activist.

Moring asked Stephan how she balanced the rights of protesters and police.

She said that even with thousands of people taking part in protests, only 24 face felony charges in San Diego County. But none for unlawful assembly.

“They’ve been arson, they’ve been assault, they’ve been looting,” Stephan said. “It’s been a very bright line. … The people that I hear from in the community … don’t want the violent voices because they’re actually causing a negative effect to which should be a beautiful expression of First Amendment [rights].”

After my tweet noted Stephan’s “movements” remark, one commenter asked: “What is she talking about?”

Another replied: “George Soros.”

Jewish billionaire Soros was featured in a Stephan campaign website three years ago that later was slammed as anti-Semitic. It said: “Billionaire Social Activist George Soros has brought his war against law enforcement to San Diego and he’s spending more than $1 million to support anti-law enforcement candidate Genevieve Jones-Wright for District Attorney.”

Stephan, in other remarks, boasted that county jails have only five positive cases of COVID-19 and the typical jail population has been cut from 5,400 to 3,700, although it “inched up to 3,900” Tuesday.

She said she’s formed a committee on race and equity, taking into account stories she’s heard from the 17% of her upper management who are Black.

“They see the reality that there are inequities and people don’t feel safe in interactions with police,” Stephan said in the Zoom session, posted Wednesday. “Hard times have forged beautiful things in the civil rights movement…. I take it as an opportunity to do better, to be better.”

The forum was titled “Meeting this Moment: How the Bench, Bar and Media are Addressing the Intersection of COVID-19 and the Social Justice Moment.” It included a 10-minute video overview of recent events.

Stephan said her 1,000-employee office is making the adjustment to remote appearances. Witnesses are appearing and defense attorneys (via private calls) are meeting with their clients.

She credits Capt. Kirk and company.

“I’m very glad that I loved ‘Star Trek’ in my childhood because it really prepared me to meet this moment,” Stephan said. “Although I didn’t know how it was going to work, I had the belief that somehow we could beam into the courtroom and be able to perform our jobs.”

Lorne Alksne, presiding judge of San Diego Superior Court, described the roller coaster of closed courtrooms (and a one-day shuttering because of vandalized courthouse windows) and a “0-60” move to remote court sessions.

She predicted a difficult fall and 2021 — with 20,000 criminal matters in the county pipeline. Some 8,000-10,000 people are in pretrial status, and 2,700 jury trials are backed up, she said.

“I can’t imagine that we’re going to be able to catch up with the number of cases that we have to do anytime soon,” said Alksne, a La Jolla High School and USD School of Law alumna who became presiding judge Jan. 1 with “absolutely no playbook” for a pandemic.

“We are going to be in an unprecedented situation with the backlog and the economic crisis,” she said, later adding that she’s forming a committee co-chaired by Judges Rod Shelton and Paul Rosenstein on bias in the legal community.

“Their function is education,” she said. “It’s not a complaint committee.”

But she saw a silver lining — much higher attendance rates in places like family court. People accused or victims of domestic violence are phoning in.

“One woman was in a supermarket break room … and that person might never have appeared before us,” Alksne said. “She couldn’t take the time off work.” The woman won her request for a restraining order.

Also seeing an opening was Andrea St. Julian, president of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association and co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, a key force behind San Diego’s Measure B, the November ballot item seeking an independent Commission on Police Practices.

“Our goal today,” she said in her online turn, “is not simply to think about how we can get back to where we were before COVID-19 and before court closures. … Because if we only look at that we’d be really missing an important opportunity.”

Instead of talking or forming committees to talk, a commitment is needed to understand the sources of “rage” and “accept that our legal system is deeply, deeply flawed,” St. Julian said.

While Measure B would give a police oversight panel full power to investigate complaints, she said, “the real change in the long run is made from commenting and making suggestions about the policies, practices and procedures of the police department.”

The journalism panelists were Dana Littlefield, public safety editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Adam Racusin, investigative reporter and editor at San Diego’s ABC 10News.

They described the challenges of keeping reporters safe while covering the pandemic and protests and making sure their COVID coverage was accurate (with Racusin saying his team “triple- and quadruple-checks” its facts).

Littlefield, who began covering state courts in 2003, said she feels a “little bit hamstrung” when her reporters can’t speak to families and lawyers in the courthouses she used to roam.

But her paper’s goal is “telling the stories that absolutely need to be heard and representing a wide array of perspectives within those stories,” she said, noting a $30,000 Google grant employing six journalists (out of 100 applicants) working on a social justice project.

“I can’t tell you what that project is — because I don’t know,” she said. “I’m very excited to see what they come up with.”