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Orange County prosecutors announced Friday they filed criminal charges against Anaheim Councilman Jose Moreno, county Democratic Party Chair Ada Briceño, and 19 other people for blocking traffic during a January protest supporting higher wages for hotel workers.

District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office charged each of the 21 demonstrators with two misdemeanors: loitering on a public passageway in a way that obstructs free passage, and conspiracy to violate that Anaheim city law.

“As the District Attorney, I respect the right to protest, but all of us are required to do it in a lawful manner,” Spitzer said in a news release issued Friday at 4:30 p.m.

“The right to protest is afforded to everyone; exercising that right does not allow anyone to break the law and bring traffic to a complete standstill.”

During the Jan. 24 protest, union leaders sat in the street at the busy intersection of Harbor Blvd. and Katella Ave. with clergy members and hotel workers for about 10 minutes, according to news reports.

Protesters sitting in the street during the hotel workers’ rally on Jan. 24, 2019. Credit: Photo by Unite Here Local 11, via Facebook

Briceño, who leads the hotel workers’ union that organized the protest, said she and the other protesters were engaged in peaceful protest, inspired by the civil rights movement, to stand up for working families trying to earn a living.

“Peaceful civil disobedience is a method used when traditional measures don’t work. In this case, I feel very proud…that the sacrifices of those 20 [other] individuals were instrumental to making sure that we uplifted the lives of over 1,000 members, plus their families, here in Orange County,” Briceño said in an interview Monday regarding the charges.

“That means that they received a wage increase that they have never seen in the life of their agreement. They received protections for sexual harassment and sexual assaults on the job,” she added, including a “panic button” at work to report assaults.

Briceño is the co-president of Unite Here Local 11, and in January was elected chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County.

Ada Briceño, the county Democratic Party chair and labor leader, sitting in the street during the hotel workers’ rally on Jan. 24, 2019. Credit: Photo by Unite Here Local 11, via Facebook

Regarding the charges, Briceño said she and the other protesters understood there would be consequences to their actions.

“We all knew we were going in there understanding that there are consequences,” Briceño said.

“It was inspired by the civil rights movement for us, and can you imagine, had [the civil rights movement] not used those tactics and other tactics, where we would be and how long it would have taken us to be [where we are today],” Briceño said, adding there still is much more to do in the civil rights movement as well.

DA officials responded by emphasizing they are enforcing the law without picking sides.

“The Orange County District Attorney’s Office does not take sides. Our job as prosecutors is not to judge the righteousness of a cause; our job is to judge the lawfulness of an action,” Spitzer’s office said Monday in a statement provided by spokeswoman Kimberly Edds.

“In this case more than 800 protestors decided to block one of the busiest intersections in the Anaheim resort district – a violation of the law. All but 21 protestors adhered to the lawful orders of police to disperse,” the statement added. “Those 21 individuals were appropriately charged because they failed to lawfully disperse.”

Moreno and Briceño are well-known figures in the progressive wing of OC’s Democratic Party.

The Jan. 24 arrests came amid a day of protest by hundreds of hotel workers represented by Unite Here Local 11. 

The hotel workers were protesting near a high-profile spot – the Anaheim Convention Center, which often attracts thousands of out-of-town guests and tourists.

Around the time of the protest, about 100,000 people were expected to attend the National Association of Music Merchants convention.

Moreno, in an interview Monday, said Spitzer was following through on his campaign promise to hold people accountable and that he looks forward to seeing the DA continue that when wealthy political interests break the law.

“I appreciate [Spitzer’s] diligence on making sure that our laws are upheld. But certainly [I] am hopeful that he takes into account context and harm – we didn’t harm, no one was harmed by our action directly. There was inconvenience,” Moreno said.

“Whatever consequences may come my way, and also for the other 20 [are] certainly well worth the consequence if it means the backbone of our economy – our hotel workers, our hospitality industry workers” receive “fair, dignified wages,” health care for them and families, and a panic button for safety at their jobs, which Moreno said they did receive. “They are the backbone of our economy. They deserve it,” Moreno said.

The defendants’ first court appearance on the charges – known as an arraignment – is scheduled for the morning of Friday, April 19 at the Fullerton courthouse of Orange County Superior Court.

“As a council member, I should be treated equal to all others, as an elected official. And the DA in his campaign made very clear that nobody is above the law in our county, and that he would act accordingly. And so I appreciate him holding up his campaign commitments to the people of Orange County,” Moreno said.

“From my vantage point, there will be much more work to do in Orange County as we continue to see big money and its influence on political campaigns, and ultimately decision-making, in policy formations and actions that push the boundaries of our local laws and ethics,” he added. “I look forward to this district attorney continuing his campaign commitment of making sure he cleans up Orange County’s dirty politics.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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