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June 1 protesters criticize police use of tear gas

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Stopping traffic on the freeway. Standing face to face with more than 100 law enforcement officers dressed head to toe in riot gear. Pepper balls and tear gas. Cal Poly sophomore Ashley Rios saw it all on June 1.

Rios, like so many other attendees, heard about the June 1 protest through word of mouth and social media.

Rios participated in both the R.A.C.E Matters rally and the June 1 protest and was glad both had marched through the downtown area and other parts of the community.

"I feel like SLO is this bubble of privilege, where nothing really happens here. It's a pretty mellow town, and it's easy to fall into the trap of saying, 'Oh nothing's happening here so I don't have to pay attention, I can just live my life,'" she said.

When she marched through the downtown area, Rios said she noticed people dining outside or shopping stopped and paid attention.

"Even if they didn't agree, they saw what we were saying, they heard our chants, and I think that's very important," Rios said.

She was one of more than a thousand Central Coast residents who marched for roughly six hours total through downtown SLO, onto Highway 101, and near the intersection of Santa Rosa and Walnut streets, where they were met by law enforcement officers in riot gear.

While the SLO Police Department claims it exhausted its resources, only using tear gas after several warnings and unsuccessful negotiations with protest leaders, marchers have a different perspective.

SLO Police Chief Deanna Cantrell said at a press briefing on June 2 that police asked June 1 protest leaders several times to move the march away from the police department and the freeway entrance, but organizers and protesters refused.

But Rios said one protest organizer was standing near her toward the end of the night, and she wasn't consulted by law enforcement. Rios also said a number of protesters did leave before police released tear gas just before 9 p.m., which came as a shock.

"I did not hear a one-minute warning," she told New Times. "I don't know if any of anyone did. None of my friends heard a one-minute warning. We heard the five-minute warning, but they did not tear gas us after five minutes, so we assumed that it was an empty threat. And so we stayed and we knelt."

But then law enforcement shot pepper balls on the ground and into the crowd. Protesters responded by throwing water bottles and rocks at law enforcement. Then, law enforcement deployed tear gas.

Despite her mask, Rios said she felt like she couldn't breathe. She tried to run away but started to hyperventilate. Her eyes burned. Her face burned. Everyone around her ran and panicked.

Rios said it's frustrating that some people think protesters were the instigators.

"They're going to use that to discredit us when it's just, it's just not true," Rios said. "I think that them tear gassing us while we had our hands up—it shows that why we're protesting is the right thing to do."

SLO County residents and sisters Genevieve and Jillian Rice also attended the June 1 protest, but they left to grab food just before law enforcement used tear gas on the crowd.

They rushed back to help a friend that had been gassed. She had completely drenched herself in water in an attempt to stop the burning, they said, and in the chaos she had carried a lost child out of the crowd.

"There's no reason to be met with that kind of force," Jillian said.

Genevieve said she was there for almost the entire protest, and she didn't see a single act of violence all day. The police weren't trying to protect protesters, she said, "It became inconvenient for them."

The Rice sisters talked to New Times at a much smaller protest outside the SLO police department on June 2, where about 40 demonstrators listened to music and held signs in protest of police brutality and racism.

"We think it's so important to come out today especially," Genevieve said. "[Tear gas] won't scare us away." Δ

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