A series of Saturday protests in Orange County over law enforcement culminated in the day’s largest and most raucous demonstration in Santa Ana, where officers and Sheriff’s deputies in riot gear shot rubber bullets and tear gas canisters and faced off against 400-plus protesters, who advocated for police reforms with signs and chants while also lighting fireworks and launching projectiles.

The protests had largely remained around the intersection of McFadden Ave. and Bristol St., with another group of little over a hundred protesters gathering outside the Santa Ana police station, said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna on Saturday night. As of midnight, protests were ongoing but dispersed into smaller groups.

Police confirmed reports of looting later in the night.

A variety of videos from the local area broadcast on Facebook around 11:00 p.m. showed looting at some local stores, like Smart & Final, O’Reilly Auto Parts and Rite Aid.

Local residents and protesters took issue with the looters, admonishing them not to destroy local shops.

The crowds gathered in response to nationwide outcry over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer who was filmed pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck. Floyd’s death was the most recent incident of police killings that have prompted popular uproar across the U.S.

The issue also hits home for Santa Ana, according to police reform advocate and city commissioner Carlos Perea, who said “we cannot continue to fund local police without meaningful accountability and a discussion about the role police continue to play in local communities.”

In Santa Ana, the police union is one of the largest campaign spenders in city elections, while council members have opted not to establish formal oversight bodies specifically dedicated to the police department.

A police helicopter flew overhead Saturday while protesters in Santa Ana set off fireworks, threw firecrackers and “a lot of different projectiles at officers and police vehicles,” Bertagna said.

Bertagna said arrests have been made as of midnight, but was unsure on how many as he and other officials were gathering information from the department’s command center. Though he said one Sheriff’s deputy had been injured and transported out of the area. 

Voice of OC captured video of the protests in Santa Ana and other cities:

YouTube video

A Santa Ana protester who spoke to Voice of OC on the condition of anonymity said police “shot tear gas canisters here and there, and one even hit someone’s kid on the head. I even heard they shot rubber bullets.” 

Bertagna said tear gas canisters were indeed fired, and later confirmed officers shot rubber bullets Sunday morning.

The protesters had largely gathered along the median at the intersection, while another crowd of protesters looked on from the adjacent Northgate Market plaza, until police started to cordon off crowds of people back into the parking lots and streets.

Ahead of the protests, storefronts in the area like the Northgate Market had boarded up their windows and doors. 

Joining Santa Ana police officers responding to the protests were officers from “just about every law enforcement agency in the county,” Bertagna said, “including the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept.”

The protests come on the heels of peaceful demonstrations in Fullerton and Orange earlier today. In Fullerton, at least two people had been arrested over vandalism and failure to disperse, according to Fullerton Police Sgt. Eric Bridges.

Riot police block an intersection on May 30, 2020 during the protest in Fullerton. Credit: JOSE HERNANDEZ, Voice of OC

Police violence and accountability in law enforcement have been a hot issue in Orange County for years.

The City of Santa Ana in particular has been grappling with the role of its police union in city politics while council members in the past have opted out of a formal police oversight board.

This month, Republican councilwoman Ceci Iglesias was removed from her position as councilwoman in a recall election that resulted from a year-long campaign funded mostly by the city’s police union, which represents officers during labor negotiations. She had been publicly clashing with the union over controversial pay raises granted to officers last year.

In Anaheim, where riots occurred in 2012 after controversial officer-involved shootings, issues of police violence against Latinos gave rise to one of the community’s most prominent political groups, Los Amigos de Orange County, and led to the more recent formation of Anaheim’s police review board — making Anaheim the first city in the county to have one.

Protesters hold signs protesting the killing of George Floyd in Orange on May 30, 2020. Credit: JOSE HERNANDEZ, Voice of OC

The national debate had been localizing in Orange County for much of Thursday and Friday, with officials like Orange County’s top cop, Sheriff Don Barnes, denouncing the Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd and the others in the video. 

Barnes strongly condemned the killing in a May 28 memo saying “the death of George Floyd was wrong,” and that “equally troubling” was the fact that “three officers stood by while their partner acted in a manner that contradicts his sworn commitment to protect and serve.” He said what occurred in the video “goes beyond the scope of any tactic we are trained to use.”

But his department also stirred controversy for its use of a Thin Blue Line flag during a peace officers’ memorial occasion on Thursday, which happens on the last Thursday of May every year but coincided with the national controversy around Floyd’s death. 

The Thin Blue Line flag was originally dedicated to police officers but has recently become popularized within Blue Lives Matter, a pro-law enforcement countermovement to Black Lives Matter, which seeks an end to police violence and systemic racism toward Black people in America.

Sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the flag was raised as part of the annual ceremony that the department participates in, and that the flag was “completely unrelated” to the events in Minnesota and wasn’t meant as a political statement in support of Blue Lives Matter.

Critics and local activist groups on social media quickly criticized the department’s use of the flag as “tone deaf.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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