Signs advocating law enforcement reform and chants denouncing police violence washed over a number of Orange County cities in mostly peaceful protests Sunday, the second day in a row of rallies, though some cities like Santa Ana and Huntington Beach reported arrests and were joined by Costa Mesa in enforcing curfews to curb late night gatherings.
Local police in both Huntington Beach and Santa Ana ended up eventually disbursing protests, claiming public safety concerns.
The countywide protests come in response to nationwide outcry over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, and police violence in general toward Black people and people of color in the U.S.
In Huntington Beach, police ordered an 8:00 p.m. curfew for specific locations in the city after officials claimed a protest of 500 people in the area of Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street “turned violent” and prompted police to declare an unlawful assembly, according to a Sunday post on the department’s Facebook page.
Protesters across the country have justified riots and property damage by citing the futility of past peaceful protests in effecting systemic change on the issue of police accountability.
Angie Bassett, an HBPD spokesperson for the department reached for comment by Voice of OC, referred to the Facebook post in a text message. The curfew will remain in effect until 5:30 a.m. on Monday.
Costa Mesa officials ordered a similar curfew for 8:00 p.m. and Santa Ana’s curfew set in at 10:00 p.m., responding to a demonstration the day before in the central part of Santa Ana where police fired tear gas canisters and shot rubber bullets at protesters who advocated police reforms and launched projectiles. Officials also reported looting that night.
Facebook Live broadcasts on Sunday night showed Santa Ana police moving in on some people who remained out in the streets after the curfew took effect, with one person claiming they were hit by a rubber bullet.
Santa Ana protests throughout the day were largely calm but by around 7 p.m. local police ordered crowds at Santa Ana and Flower to disperse after some people threw bottles. Only two arrests were made for failing to disperse at that time, according to Santa Ana Police Sgt. Anthony Bertagna.
A large crowd of about 1,500 marchers gathered mainly in front of the city’s Old Orange County Courthouse in downtown Santa Ana, though the crowd was sometimes split into separate groups. It was easy to tell throughout the day where the bulk of the protesters were by wherever the police helicopter circled in downtown.
Numerous Latino-owned businesses on Fourth Street like the bridal dress shops and a jewelry store were boarded up with plywood, after the raucous demonstrations the night before. Many had spray painted “raza owned” or “Latino/Latina owned” and also sprayed “BLM ally” on the plywood.
At various times protesters leading the march would come to a knee, especially when police were blocking off areas in certain intersections.
Some protestors listed names of Black men and women killed by police officers throughout the country.
Many protestors chanted “I can’t breathe,” which were some of Floyd’s last words while Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
The phrase has become a mantra for people protesting Floyd’s death across the country.
At various downtown Santa Ana corners there were bottles of water and milk to help alleviate the effects of pepper spray and snacks laid out for protesters.
Earlier in the day before crowds were ordered to disperse, Santa Ana Councilman David Penaloza in a text message remarked “I’m in downtown marching. So happy it’s peaceful.”
On Sunday morning, Penaloza took issue with looters the night before during the central Santa Ana protest, calling those participating “animals” on a Facebook post. Penaloza later apologized.
Largely peaceful demonstrations also took place in San Clemente and Irvine.
The protests seemingly struck a raw chord in communities like Santa Ana, where community organizers localized the problems through the lens of systemic issues around youth environments and police relations. There are mounting questions for local officials over how far they will now go to prove solidarity on the issue as well as pursuing greater accountability for their local law enforcement agencies.
Local organizers like Kelsey Brewer — who is, to the best of her knowledge, the OC Young Democrats’ first Black woman leader — won praise on social media with announcements Sunday that all candidates would have to cosign the Black Lives Matter movement to get a party endorsement and commit to facilitating community roundtables with law enforcement.
In a phone interview she criticized local elected officials for being “washy” in their solidarity and “saying all of the right things” with no “actionable” commitments.
Carlos Perea, a police reform advocate and Santa Ana commissioner, called Brewer’s remarks “powerful” and said local Orange County officials after this weekend have one question to ask themselves:
“Are they going to have the courage and be bold to ensure there are meaningful systematic changes to law enforcement oversight in City Hall, wherever they are?”
As local agencies prioritize law enforcement with their budgets, Perea said one of the first city services to be on the “chopping block” are youth services — “young people’s future and lives.”
He pointed to city budgets that apportion the largest amount of their spending to police, as well as gang injunctions in park poor county areas spanning west Santa Ana. “This county is at war with young people.”
He and Boomer Vicente, an organizer at Chispa OC, called on cities like Santa Ana to renew discussions around establishing a formal police oversight board. Currently, Anaheim is the only city in the county to have one.
“These issues are close to home. I saw that some (Santa Ana) council members and elected officials were marching on the streets. That’s not enough,” Vicente said over the phone. “We need to see real systemic changes to prevent police violence and ensure officers are held accountable. These same officials have had the chance to champion police accountability, but they always fell short.”
Jose Solorio, asked whether the weekend’s protests inspired him to renew police review board discussions, said “the current situation will require that police departments evaluate their use of force policy, monitor the use of force stats and trends at their agency, and also renew their commitment to community-oriented policing.” Solorio would only take questions over text.
“Our community also has many families that understand income inequality first-hand and the struggles that people of color endure. We know that Black Lives Matter and mourn the loss of George Floyd,” he added.
The weekends’ events have reinvigorated a longstanding debate in places like Santa Ana and Anaheim – which has planned a protest for tomorrow – about instituting meaningful civilian oversight over police as well as the role of the police union in local politics.
Both Santa Ana and Anaheim have had their share of community outcry over officer involved shootings with Anaheim experiencing riots in 2012 that raised troubling questions about the lack of city spending on youth programs.
It also led to the formation of the city’s police review board, making Anaheim the first in the county to have one.
Santa Ana currently doesn’t have a formal oversight board dedicated to police accountability, despite the police union, which has been criticized for exerting undue influence on city hall as well as the local budget.
Santa Ana residents just came off a controversial recall of Republican Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, who openly clashed with local police union officials over what she called unsustainable salary raises granted by the city council majority at the time.
The police in Santa Ana usually get the largest appropriation of the city’s spending budget — largely driven by payroll, which council members have in the past justified to keep the city competitive in hiring officers and maintaining effective police services and emergency response.
Yet activists say this trend on police spending ultimately ends up shorting other critical city services, such as youth programs, that also contribute to maintaining public safety.
When council members like Penaloza criticized the looters on Saturday night, local activists challenged him and other officials to look at systemic youth and policing issues in the city and why Floyd’s death struck such a nerve among young people in the first place.
While many city officials denounced young people on Saturday for looting, activists like Resilience OC Director Roberto Herrera in a previous interview argued that police are essentially “looting other city services” like youth programs “by sucking up resources in the budget.”
Many of these budget debates will soon play out at city halls across Orange County over the next month, as leaders must adopt balanced budgets by the start of July.
Staff writer Spencer Custodio contributed reporting.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.