Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido called off Tuesday night’s City Council meeting after a chaotic confrontation over free speech and decorum that began when the mayor ordered the council chambers cleared because a man would not abide by his order to remove a hat with an obscene statement directed at police.
The man, a 22-year-old member of an activist group called CopWatch Santa Ana and who goes by the name Bijan, was sitting in the nearly packed chambers wearing a hat with the words “Fuck the Police.” Before the public portion of the meeting began, Pulido ordered Bijan to remove the hat or leave, declaring the hat a threat to decorum.
When Bijan ignored the order, Pulido directed everyone in the council chambers to leave. But a group of approximately 20 residents also refused to go and said the mayor was trying to shut down free speech.
The confrontation was the second round of a free speech versus decorum battle that began when anti-police protesters heckled and booed police officers while they were receiving commendations at their Sept. 2 meeting.
One protester at that meeting sat near the front of the chambers wearing an “FTP” shirt within sight of the council video feed.
The Santa Ana Police Officers Association sent a letter dressing down council members for not enforcing rules of decorum. The letter also alleged that officers were followed to the parking lot and called “terrorists and murderers.”
Tuesday's council agenda included a possible vote on new council chamber decorum rules that would have granted council members greater power to remove meeting attendees they deemed disruptive.
However, a source close to the union said the subtext of the letter was police officers' dismay over the lack of decorum at the council dais. Council members were chatting among themselves and leaving the dais other while officers were being recognized, behavior that officers found offensive, the source said.
Adding tension to the meeting was the deliberation by Pulido's colleagues over whether to release an investigative report into the mayor’s property swap with a city contractor.
Pulido is forced to sit out of closed session meetings involving the investigation into his dealings and wouldn’t have been privy to what was discussed or decided. But his cancellation of the meeting kept City Attorney Sonia Carvalho from publicly announcing what decision the council made, if any, behind closed doors.
After issuing his order, Pulido recessed and disappeared into a backroom presumably to discuss the matter with his colleagues. After a while, a police officer gave the crowd 30 minutes to clear the room or risk arrest.
Most defied the order and shouted at city officials and police, demanding to know what law they were breaking.
One activist, Albert Castillo of Chicanos Unidos, warned that the city would face a lawsuit if arrests were made.
Albert Castillo speaks at Mayor Miguel Pulido. (Photo by: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)
The most outspoken activist, who goes by the name Amaru, went into a profanity-laced tirade against officers, calling them “pigs” and using other derogatory language. He shouted at Pulido while the mayor was leaving the room, calling him a “fucking dictator.”
Meanwhile, police officers, some wearing helmets and batons, began to mass in the council chambers lobby while activists and journalists filmed the confrontation on their cellphones.
“There are bigger issues than the three words on my hat,” Bijan said while waiting for the time limit on the mayor’s ultimatum to run out. “It’s a meeting for the public, and I’m allowed to be here with my hat.”
Councilwoman Michele Martinez, surrounded by officers and other city officials, also clashed with protesters, saying their disrespect couldn’t be tolerated and asking Bijan to remove his hat.
“It’s disrespectful to the chambers, it’s disrespectful to our police officers, it’s disrespectful to people who are watching this show,” Martinez said.
Amaru shouted back that it was disrespectful for a police officer to have beaten an undocumented immigrant named Edgar Vargas, an incident that was caught on video and has triggered a federal investigation into whether Vargas’ civil rights were violated.
Finally, after the third warning to disperse, Pulido cancelled the meeting.
Nobody was arrested.
After protesters left, police swept the room, finding a black buck knife beneath one of the audience seats.
Following the confrontation in the council chambers, activists staged an impromptu rally outside, reading aloud a statement on the incident and alleging widespread abuse of power by the Santa Ana Police Department.
Onlookers recorded video as "Amaru" read a statement. (Photo by: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)
Amaru declared that police officers were enforcing a system of social inequality that marginalized certain ethnicities and classes.
“CopWatch Santa Ana knows that the main function of police has very little to do with crime, or enforcing the law, and is more directed at maintaining existing social inequality, especially those based on race and class,” Amaru said.
Not everyone was cheering the activists.
Longtime resident Peter Katz criticized the activists as “communists” and said the conduct raised the “age old question” of whether the activists' freedom of speech rights trump his own rights.
Bijan said he was at the council to speak during public comments and air a beef that CopWatch Santa Ana has with officer James D Berwanger, saying that the officer stopped Bijan on July 11 while him and his group were on street corners holding signs warning drivers about upcoming police checkpoints.
Then early morning Oct. 2, Bijan claims he was arrested for loitering and obstruction of traffic by simply standing on the sidewalk.
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