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DA charges six more protesters, Harmon accuses Dow of 'systemic suppression'

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The SLO County District Attorney's Office filed charges against six additional individuals involved in a July 21 protest that blocked traffic on Highway 101, bringing the total number of protesters charged to eight.

CHARGED SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon accused SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow of disenfranchising three Black protesters who were charged in relation to the July 21 protest (pictured) in SLO. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • CHARGED SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon accused SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow of disenfranchising three Black protesters who were charged in relation to the July 21 protest (pictured) in SLO.

According to court documents, the DA's Office filed an amendement to the case against local activist and protest leader Tianna Arata on Oct. 15 to include misdemeanor charges against three Black men. Local organizations, including R.A.C.E. Matters SLO and BLM Community Action, responded by condemning District Attorney Dan Dow for "singling out Black protesters."

"These actions seek to intimidate people of color exercising their rights of free speech and is an effort to shut down dissent in our community. Through his actions and associations, the DA has shown his outright discrimination toward local protest and the young Black people participating," R.A.C.E. Matters said in an online statement.

Marcus Montgomery, Amman Asfaw, and Joshua Powell were charged for alleged incidents with motorists on Highway 101 and near downtown San Luis Obispo. Montgomery is being charged with false imprisonment; two counts of obstruction of a thoroughfare; and unlawfully resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer. Asfaw is charged with one misdemeanor count of false imprisonment and Powel with a misdemeanor of unlawfully resisting, obstructing, or delaying a peace officer. Each individual was served with a letter to appear in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Oct. 22.

Asfaw, a member and chair of the San Luis Obispo Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, received immediate support from the task force, which issued a statement stating that he would continue his roles with the group. Task force Vice Chair Michael Boyer stated that Asfaw is the youngest member, sole student, and was unanimously elected as chair.

"He is a graduate student in electrical engineering and a part-time lab instructor at Cal Poly; he will complete his master's degree in June 2021. Mr. Asfaw is the current president of the SLO Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and the only student columnist for the American Society for Engineering Education's magazine, Prism. Mr. Asfaw embodies his personal core values of respect, integrity, and commitment through servant leadership," the statement read. "We look forward to his ongoing contributions in the pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion."

On Oct. 16, the DA's Office filed a complaint against three white men in connection to an incident with a motorist on Highway 101 that resulted in damage to the vehicle's rear window. Robert Lastra Jr., Sam Grocott, and Jerad Hill were charged with misdemeanor counts for violating the personal liberty of the driver and occupants of a silver BMW.

Several protesters who attended the July sit-in on Highway 101 told New Times that the driver disregarded the efforts to prevent him from driving through protesters, and he revved his engine several times until he hit one of the protesters as he drove away. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) investigated the incident and told New Times that the DA's Office filed the CHP's recommended charges.

Lastra Jr. was charged with a felony count for damaging and destroying property; Hill is accused of the same crime but was charged with a misdemeanor; and Grocott is charged with two additional misdemeanors for blocking two separate vehicles.

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon emailed an open letter to Dow on Oct. 17, calling "the wrongful prosecution" of three Black men an intimidation tactic.

"Of the hundreds of people who protested peacefully, the district attorney has singled out these three Black men—leaders in our communities—from the mostly white crowd," the letter read.

If "Dan Dow gets his way," the letter stated, the activism of the three men will result in a prison sentence. The misdemeanors filed against the men have a maximum sentence of six months in SLO County Jail and a $1,000 fine. Harmon also stated that her campaign released a video of Asfaw endorsing her campaign and urging people to vote.

"Arresting people who are campaigning for your political opponents is a well-recognized form of voter suppression," the letter stated. "The DA is enforcing the systemic suppression of community activism here in SLO and it sends a message: you are not safe to protest or to vote or to belong—if your skin isn't white."

Harmon didn't respond to New Times' request for comment before press time.

Dow fired back with a statement on Oct. 19 calling Harmon's open letter a "political campaign stunt" that made "preposterous false allegations."

"The mayoral candidate's fundraising email was untruthful as it intentionally misstated facts and fabricated allegations for political purposes," the statement said. "I am proud of the tireless work of my office to protect the people of our county through aggressive and fair prosecution of crime and protecting the rights of crime victims."

The District Attorney's Office's job is to thoroughly review every investigation to determine if evidence proves a crime was committed, Dow stated, and his office does so without regard to individual characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or political viewpoint.

"The mayoral candidate's dangerous and divisive rhetoric seeks to stir more unrest rather than promote peace and healing in our community. I will never compromise the integrity of this office by using race or public opinion to decide whether or not to file a criminal charge," he said. Δ

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