San Luis Obispo's first Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest in the wake of Minneapolis resident George Floyd's death was dispersed by tear gas on the evening on June 1. Hours later, in what the SLO Police Department determined was an unrelated incident, a group of males in a white sedan shot out the windows of Central Coast Surfboards, Shoe Palace, and Founders Community Bank with a BB gun.
That same day, some local Paso Robles residents decided to create the Facebook group PRotect Paso with the goals of protecting the city's businesses, community, and supporting local police. The group's focus was to start "a network of patriots that are willing to stand up to protect men and women in blue, our property, and its citizens," according to the page descriptor
The private group now has about 8,145 members. New Times reached out to group administrator Tyler Henry but did not hear back by press time. The group descriptor also states that it's anti-looting, anti-violence, anti-hate, and anti-racist, but it's not anti-protest.
Paso Robles Police Chief Ty Lewis told New Times he was sent an invitation to join the group and was unsure of how to respond at first.
"Honestly, I was like, 'Wait a minute, I don't know who's organizing this or what's going to be discussed in this group,'" Lewis said.
But, he said, he was getting flooded with emails about it. So he accepted the invitation, read the page's initial posts, and responded.
"I understand the concern and the fear that is obvious in a lot of these posts, and you have to understand that while we appreciate the sentiment that you're there to back your police department in these complex types of issues, having that could be a double-edged sword," he told New Times.
Law enforcement personnel are trained in de-escalation techniques, crowd control, use of force, and crisis intervention as well as how to coordinate and communicate with other law enforcement agencies.
"When you introduce a wild card into that, and people want to take matters into their own hands, potentially it creates a whole new set of challenges for a police department," he said.
Groups similar to PRotect Paso formed in other areas around the same time, including Protect Five Cities, Protect Atascadero, and Protect Santa Maria.
Regarding the rise of such "protect" groups across the Central Coast, the SLO County Sheriff's Office does not have an official stance on these groups and organizations, according to spokesperson Tony Cipolla.
"There is no indication these groups serve a need other than to support law enforcement. The Sheriff's Office does not condone violence or the threat of violence on the part of any group or organization. And that applies to those on both sides of the protests," Cipolla said.
Paul Karp told New Times that he started the Protect Five Cities page because of the damage done to businesses in Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo. Karp said he felt that the damage happened because those business owners had no idea what was going on before it was too late.
The intent of the group is to inform people, Karp said, not to "stir up anything" or to take sides on current events.
"I have lived here my whole life and just don't want to see anything bad happen to this piece of paradise. I fully support the protests, and my daughter has attended many in support of the movement. I just think that the destruction that has overshadowed, has stolen from the movement, which is sad for everyone," he said.
The group has had friction with SLO County Protest Watch, a Facebook group created to share information about local protests and support local movements. Most recently, the two groups have called each other out over colorful ribbons placed on trees in Grover Beach and Arroyo Grande in support of local law enforcement and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Protest Watch administrators and moderators released a statement to New Times saying they believe in Protect Five Cities' goals to protect private property and businesses.
"While that may be understandable to a degree in concept, they are going about it in a way that harbors white supremacy, values property over human lives, and degrades the BLM movement. They also seem committed in portraying peaceful local protesters in a negative light," the Protest Watch statement read. "There have been biker gangs hanging around in an unfriendly manner, civilians armed with assault rifles posted on rooftops, and people lashing whips, revving engines, and shouting racial slurs."
SLO County Protest Watch said that it accepts that people are going to have differing opinions and views.
"But the fact that these groups surfaced in direct response to BLM protests is, yes, divisive and concerning," the statement read. "Let's be clear here, all lives can't matter until black lives do and 'blue' is a uniform they can take off, not a skin color they cannot." Δ
Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at [email protected].