San Diego police kept their distance across Broadway during Saturday “freedom rally” seeking reopening of the state economy. Photo by Chris Stone

Did San Diego police give preferential treatment to Saturday’s predominantly white “freedom rally” to reopen California?

That debate ignited Monday when the Rev. Shane Harris called on Police Chief David Nisleit to cite organizers of the downtown protest against stay-at-home orders and the local NAACP president posted a blistering essay ending with “For shame, Chief Nisleit.”

But leaders of separate rallies who praised police for letting them exercise their rights have rejected benefiting from racial considerations.

Harris, leader of the San Diego-based People’s Alliance for Justice, told a sparse news conference that he wasn’t against what the protesters sought but saw white privilege at play.

The Rev. Shane Harris, formerly with San Diego’s chapter of National Action Network, at earlier event. Photo by Jason Greene

“If black folks were [demonstrating] in downtown San Diego, don’t you think the police presence would be different?” he asked. “What we saw was racial entitlement at its finest.”

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order, nonessential workers who gather publicly can be fined $1,000 or get six months in jail.

Harris said the almost all-white protest at Broadway and State Street — where few wore face coverings and didn’t socially distance — was an expression of ignorance while “people of color” were showing their intelligence by following state and county orders.

He criticized rally organizers for letting protesters pack together like “sardines at a party” and urged county Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Greg Cox of the COVID-19 response committee to issue new directives allowing public protests as long as face masks were worn and participants stayed 6 feet apart.

Harris said he spoke to Nisleit on Sunday about the 2-hour downtown rally, where five officers watched from across Broadway and at least one police SUV cruised past the protest with no effort to enforce orders.

He said the police chief conceded in a phone chat that he didn’t expect protesters to gather in such large numbers — hundreds on the street and scores in cars who made repeated passes of the scene near the Westin Hotel and Hall of Justice.

Francine Maxwell of the San Diego NAACP warned San Diego police April 6 against punitive enforcement of COVID-19 rules. Photo via sandiegonaacp.org

Harris was joined in his suspicions by Francine Maxwell, president of the NAACP’s San Diego branch.

In a 600-word post Monday, she said that “we are left to wonder: did the SDPD forbear out of good sense, or out of sympathy with the protestors? Was it the protestor’s allegiance to the science-phobic, authoritarian, low-IQ individual occupying the White House that made the SDPD keep their distance? Or perhaps was it the officers’ gut feeling that white folks don’t need to be arrested?”

Maxwell recounted an incident last week in which she took a walk with her father, a retired Navy master chief with dementia.

“Imagine our surprise when a dark, unmarked [police] van jumped the curb and proceeded to drive straight at my father, who was walking 10 feet ahead of me, stopping just five feet away from him,” she wrote. “The driver, accompanied by another officer, ordered my father to come to him. … Thankfully, I was there to explain the situation, and we avoided arrest or worse.”

She asked: Was the officers’ need to enforce their will on a black man really that strong?

“There was no need to charge their vans into the ‘Freedom Rally’ two days later, so we have to wonder” about racial bias. “Train your people better than this!”

On Monday afternoon, the police and Sheriff’s Department issued a joint release that said, in part, that they recognize protesters’ fundamental First Amendment rights “while balancing it with the need to enforce the public health orders.”

“Both on Saturday and Sunday, the protests remained peaceful and once people’s voices were heard, the protests ended,” the statement said, also referring to a North County coastal protest.

At the county’s daily 2:30 p.m. update Monday, Supervisor Cox was read a texted question from Times of San Diego asking if Supervisor Fletcher supported Sheriff Bill Gore’s decision not to cite Encinitas protesters and whether Fletcher would offer new guidelines for public protests as suggested by Rev. Harris.

Cox didn’t yield the microphone to Fletcher.

“I think what we’re going to do is refer that question … to the sheriff,” Cox said. “That’s the appropriate party to respond.”

But after the update, Fletcher noted uneven county enforcement.

“It is not right that one group of protestors (who remained in their cars) were cited while another group of protestors were allowed to gather by the hundreds in clear violation of our public health orders,” he tweeted.

Echoing that sentiment Monday was San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez.

“There must be consistency in how the stay-at-home and physical-distancing orders are enforced,” she said. “I have been concerned about that, and I was in direct communication this past weekend with Chief Nisleit when these protests occurred. It’s crucially important to keep in mind that by following these orders, we can avoid overwhelming our hospitals and save more lives.”

Councilwoman Barbara Bry said in a statement: “My office has been following this situation and has been in communication with both Rev. Shane Harris and Police Chief Nisleit. I am informed of arrangements to protect public safety to the extent of the law, with all involved working in the best interest of our community during this pandemic.”

Bry’s mayoral rival, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Naomi Israel, a lead organizer of Saturday’s downtown rally, said Monday that she didn’t know Harris, adding via Facebook message: “I have been in Sacramento preparing for a protest that is happening now at the Capitol. I haven’t looked into him.”

Joint statement by San Diego Police Department and county Sheriff’s Department on weekend protests. (PDF)

She said her group peacefully gathered and “the Constitution cannot be changed or rewritten and protects every citizen of the United States of America,” referring to First Amendment rights to assembly.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department also didn’t intervene in an Encinitas protest Sunday seeking access to beaches, parks and coastal hiking trails.

In Balboa Park on Saturday, a separate group of residents marched at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street to protest the city and state shutdown orders — staying a suitable space apart.

“We do not believe that the COVID-19 bug represents such an immediate danger to others that constitutional rights should be curtailed,” Bankers Hill resident and event organizer Roger Ogden told City News Service.

Ogden told Times of San Diego he was ready for police to cite him, adding: “Would like to go to court and see if it would stand up.” He also responded to questions via an email statement.)

Standing in front of U.S. and California flags set up in a parking lot at 6125 Imperial Ave., Harris also called on county health officials to set up a COVID-19 testing station in southeastern San Diego “immediately, effective today.”

He repeatedly stressed that he didn’t have a political issue with the “freedom rally” (although he thought the Trump flags hurt their cause). In fact, Harris said he quit the Democratic Party and registered as “no party preference.”

But he offered “freedom rally” organizers advice: It would be OK to protest if you issued masks and instructions to socially distance.

He also wanted county officials to balance freedom-of-religion rights with assembly rights by allowing churches to have in-person services (as long as they followed public health directives).

In an email statement, Harris’ group said: “We believe that things would not look the same if it were mostly people of color gathering, noting they would have to pay a fee to the courts if they continue to defy this public health measure.”

At his noon update Monday, Gov. Newsom was asked about the CHP granting permits for a public protest.

“My understanding is the protest that CHP supported has social distancing … that was allowable — on the basis of people being in their vehicles and not congregating as a group,” Newsom said.

But he repeated earlier admonitions: “If you’re going to protest, practice physical distancing. …. Do so in a way that protects not only your health but the health of others.

“I deeply understand people’s anxieties. … We must have a health-first focus if we’re ultimately going to come back economically. The worst mistake we can make is making a precipitous decision based on politics and frustration that puts people’s lives at risk and ultimately sets back the cause of economic growth.”

Aaron Ruis led chants with a megaphone Saturday at the “freedom rally.” He said he understood why civil rights activist Harris would be prone to bring race into the matter.

“However, no aspect of the freedom rally was tied to race. I’m both Native American (Yaqui Indian) and Mexican,” Ruis said. “I was welcomed warmly at the rally because my calls were for freedom and that our elected officials … be held to their oath of office.”

Ruis said the people Harris and his alliance represent have also had their constitutional freedoms restricted, and “I hope Rev. Harris realizes that we were standing for their freedoms also, even their freedom to oppose our actions. That is how freedom works.”

Ogden, the Balboa Park protest organizer and not involved with the downtown rally, also reacted to Harris’ remarks.

“It saddens me to hear Rev. Harris say ‘people of color’ were showing their intelligence by following state and county orders,” he said. “Probably a lot of people, maybe most, did not think it very smart when Rosa Parks refused to [move to] the back of the bus. She was practicing civil disobedience to assert her rights as did many other courageous ‘people of color’ at that time.”

Ogden said Saturday’s protesters may not have been as oppressed as Rosa Parks but were responding in a similar way to perceived government overreach.

“I’m sure everyone would have been ecstatic to have non-white people participate in the event if they wanted,” he said of the San Diego rallies. “If they do not want to participate, that is no justification to imply that the event is racialist. That is just an unfair and crude insult to the protesters.”

“Freedom rally” organizer Israel phoned into Carl DeMaio’s KOGO talk show Monday from Sacramento, where she took part in a Capitol protest.

“I don’t think the economy is worth collapsing,” she said in a 6-minute chat. “I don’t think it’s practical to expect people to lose everything.”

DeMaio asked about her next steps “to continue the movement.”

“I want everybody to open up their businesses,” she said. “If you have a business, open up. And we will support you. … We have to not be able to live in fear. Fear is a lie.”

Naomi Israel, pictured on Facebook, boasted “MY PROTEST MADE THE FRONT PAGE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Minutes later, the unemployed San Diego mother refined her comment in a phone chat with Times of San Diego, noting she had a friend who lost a bakery.

“It’s really hard to stand by and watch people who have worked so hard their whole life …. losing their livelihoods and everything,” she said.

Why should nonessential businesses risk government sanctions greater than being cited for a streetcorner protest?

“Well, if the people want to work that bad, and they’re that desperate, then it’s up to them to do whatever they want to do,” Israel said. “Nobody is forcing anybody to do anything at all. And it’s just a suggestion.”

On KOGO, Israel said the timing of the pandemic shutdown “was extremely convenient.”

Asked by the radio host to explain that remark, she declined specifics: “I want to emphasize more, but the people who know — they know.”
 
She told Times of San Diego: “I see what’s happening, and I’m following every single day. I watch all the briefings…. While I want to be in line with the law, I also have to be in line with the Constitution.”

She was read a section of the joint police-sheriff statement that said: “While no citations were issued at the protests, that does not mean prosecution will not be sought, especially to the organizers of these events.”

What was Israel’s reaction? 

“I don’t have a reaction,” she said. “I’m done answering questions now.”

Updated at 4:20 a.m. April 21, 2020

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