A mostly peaceful and hours-long protest ended in turmoil on June 1 after the San Luis Obispo Police Department used pepper ball rounds and tear gas to disperse a crowd of protestors who allegedly refused to move along, a move that police and city leaders say was a necessary last resort.
PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
TENSE Protesters stand face-to-face with law enforcement officers outside of the SLO Police Department on the afternoon of June 1.
At a press conference in city hall on June 2, SLO Police Chief Deanna Cantrell said that while the city supports the ongoing peaceful protests against racism and police brutality, protesters on June 1 tested the police department’s resources. She said they blocked traffic on city streets and Highway 101, gathered outside the police department for hours, and eventually refused to move away from the intersection of Santa Rosa and Mill streets, near both a freeway entrance and the SLO Police Department.
“We had all of our resources in the entire city dealing with this,” Cantrell said at the June 2 press briefing. “And so our ability to provide public safety for the rest of the city and the rest of the citizens was severely diminished.”
The June 1 protest in San Luis Obispo was just one of many uprisings across the state and country aimed at drawing attention to and stopping police brutality and racism. The nationwide movement was sparked by the recent death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, who died after a police officer pinned him to the ground on May 25.
Protestors first gathered at Mission Plaza in downtown SLO around 2 p.m. on June 1. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Central Coast residents marched through downtown and to the police station, where, near the intersection of Walnut and Santa Rosa streets, Cantrell said law enforcement kneeled with protestors “in solidarity and in support of racial justice.”
Eventually the protesters increased in numbers and, a little before 5 p.m., Cantrell said protestors pushed past police and onto Highway 101, where they blocked traffic for about 15 minutes. The marchers moved back to Santa Rosa and Mill, where they remained peacefully for hours.
As night started to fall, law enforcement, which included agencies from throughout SLO County, became concerned that protesters would try to get back onto the freeway in the dark. Cantrell said there were also concerns that officers would be needed elsewhere in the city—because of alleged posts on social media calling for vandalism and looting throughout the day.
Law enforcement then deemed the protest unlawful and a risk to public safety. They asked protest leaders to move away from the police department and freeway entrance, but Cantrell claims protestors refused to move. One protest attendee told New Times
she couldn’t hear what officers were announcing and that protest leaders were trying to get people to leave, but they wouldn’t.
The decision to shoot pepper balls—small rounds that release chemicals similar to pepper spray—into the crowd came after several warnings. Tear gas, Cantrell said, was released at about 8:30 p.m. after protestors threw rocks, water bottles, and fireworks at law enforcement in response to the pepper balls.
“That decision didn't come lightly,” Cantrell said in an emotional speech at the press briefing. “It's a heavy, heavy burden to have to make that decision and know the impact that it's going to have on, not only your own staff, but on the community that normally loves you, that's going to be very mad at you.”
About four protesters were arrested and released, and Cantrell said there were no reported injuries. Later that night, a few businesses in downtown SLO were vandalized. Cantrell said while suspects in those incidents have been arrested, it’s not clear whether they were associated with the protest.
“I know the city knows that we support your first amendment rights. We’ve demonstrated it over and over and over again over the last several years, your right to gather and express in a peaceful way,” Cantrell said at the briefing. “But what will not be tolerated by this police department or any police department in our county are actions of vandalism, unsafe behavior, damaging property, theft, arson, or any other acts of violence to people or property.”
SLOPD’s use of tear gas has been widely criticized by community members who say the protest was peaceful.
Although the June 1 protest followed on the heels of another local march and rally hosted by R.A.C.E. Matters SLO County
, which was run without issue, the two events didn’t have the same organizers. There are more local protests scheduled for the coming days, and City Manager Derek Johnson said the city will be watching and waiting to see what happens before imposing a city curfew, a tactic taken in a number of cities across the U.S., including Santa Maria.
The decision, Johnson said, ultimately lies with him.
“So I’ll be evaluating both today and tonight and making a decision as needed,” he said. ∆