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Youth protesters march through downtown San Diego, Balboa Park

Youth protesters peacefully march Monday through Balboa Park. They were protesting police brutality and the recent death of George Floyd.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Monday’s youth-led protest follows three days of demonstrations in La Mesa and San Diego decrying police violence against black people

A fourth-straight day of San Diego-area protests calling for police reform and racial justice kicked off Monday afternoon with a youth-led march through downtown San Diego and Balboa Park.

By the evening, the several-hundred-strong group of young people joined a few dozen protesters near San Diego’s downtown police headquarters, where lines of officers in riot gear were positioned along Broadway and 13th Street, about a block from the police building.

The group protested in front of the heavily-armed officers for a little more than an hour before the large majority headed back to Balboa Park and then Hillcrest.

It was unclear how many protesters stayed near police headquarters, but San Diego police declared an unlawful assembly there around 10:30 p.m. after claiming that bottles, fireworks and other objects were thrown at officers.

Monday’s protests followed similar demonstrations decrying police violence against black people on Friday and Saturday in La Mesa and Sunday in downtown San Diego.

Friday night’s demonstration in La Mesa remained peaceful, but protests Saturday and Sunday that began peacefully escalated to violence between officers and demonstrators, with police deploying tear gas, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets, and the protests devolving into rioting, widespread vandalism, arson and some looting.

The regional protests are part of a nationwide movement as outrage continues to swell over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minnesota. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes. A bystander caught the encounter on video in which a handcuffed Floyd, whose face was pushed into the ground, could be heard repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe.

Amid the civil unrest that has erupted since Floyd’s death, Gov. Gavin Newsom called Monday for peaceful demonstrations, accountability for those who commit acts of violence, and action by elected officials to address the root causes of the outrage.

Newsom said during a news conference that protesters who have taken to the street deserve to be heard, and deserve action to address excessive use of force by police against people of color. But Newsom said violence and looting will not be tolerated.

“For those of you who are out there protesting, I want you to know that you matter,” Newsom said. “I want you to know that I care, we care. You’ve lost patience, so have I. You are right to feel wronged. You are right to feel the way you are feeling. And we, collectively (as a) society, have a responsibility to you to do better, to be better.”

Newsom encouraged protesters to express their frustration, but to do so peacefully.

County Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Greg Cox said Monday afternoon during an update on the coronavirus pandemic that they understood protesters’ anger about Floyd’s death.

Fletcher said it was time for elected officials to take action to fight systemic racism and do more to make sure police treat people fairly and equally.

Monday’s youth-led march kicked off around noon at San Diego City College. Several hundred demonstrators walked down B Street and Park Boulevard to the parking lot of the San Diego Zoo, which remains closed due to the coronavirus, before marching through the park.

By about 6 p.m., the youth marchers had joined a smaller group of protesters near San Diego’s downtown police headquarters, where they stood face-to-face with officers who were dressed in full-body armor, helmets and face shields, and armed with batons and other weapons.

As the evening wore on, some of the youth organizers urged the group to disperse, and a little after 7 p.m., the majority of the protesters began a procession back down Broadway away from police headquarters.

Earlier in the day, one of the protest organizers, 18-year-old Nikki Sanchez, had urged the youth marchers to avoid violent actions or speech, including vandalism or calling police names. She said anyone who did such things would not be part of the student-led protest.

At one point, a person walking with the protesters yelled toward the police and Sanchez yelled on a megaphone, “Keep your rude comments to yourself!”

The youth marchers also had a brief standoff Monday afternoon with police at Park Boulevard and Presidents Way, where officers temporarily blocked the group from making its way into Balboa Park. In response, the marchers knelt, asking to be let through and chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

After a few minutes, the officers relented.

The marchers then proceeded through Balboa Park to a grassy area near El Prado and Sixth Avenue, where for a time most members of the group lay down with their hands behind their backs and simulated the pose of someone being arrested. While doing so, they chanted “I can’t breathe,” among the last words spoken by both Floyd and Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after a New York City Police Department officer restrained him from behind with a neck hold.

Youth protesters simulated the pose of a person being arrested Monday afternoon near Balboa Park after marching to the area from San Diego City College in downtown San Diego.
(Kristen Taketa/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In the grassy park area, the protest organizers and others addressed the group, with black speakers talking about the fear they feel just walking down the street or when they see police. They expressed frustration over having to fight what they said are the racial injustices that have persisted since the days of slavery.

Nyaduoth Gatkuoth, a 19-year-old black student at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon, said needed changes won’t come even with a new president.

“This is based on a system of institutionalized racism,” Gatkuoth said. “This is not gonna change with a simple vote.”

She and Sanchez said during their speeches that they are tired of seeing people do little more than re-post on Instagram or other social media about the movement.

“Many of you guys treat it like a hashtag. This is not a trend. This is my life,” Gatkuoth said.

San Diego police officers followed along and in front of the marchers, clearing streets and blocking freeway entrances. Most of the demonstrators appeared to be in their mid to late teens, with a few older protesters scattered throughout the group.

“We’re trying our best to use our youth as a weapon to keep (San Diego police) from getting violent,” Sanchez, a senior at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, said. “People are more willing to listen to our youth than adults.”

As the group marched up Park Boulevard, the demonstrators stopped several times to drink water and use chalk to write messages like “Black Lives Matter.”

Organizers urged the protesters to use chalk rather than spray paint, and discouraged some in the group who voiced a desire to block Interstate 5 or state Route 163.

Arrington Jones, who is black, said she was protesting “the injustice in this country that’s been going on for way too long.”

“People are angry and people are hurt, and they just want change to happen so black (people) don’t have to be in fear of the people that are supposed to protect our lives,” Jones, 18, who just graduated from Francis Parker High School, said. “So I came out here today to represent the lives that have been lost to police brutality, to get justice for their names and to never let people forget who they were.”

As Monday’s march was getting underway, the California Highway Patrol closed some downtown freeway ramps as a precaution, according to City News Service. The closures included west state Route 94 to F Street, the First Avenue entrance to south I-5, and the south I-5 exits to 10th Avenue and Front Street.

As the protesters were gathering Monday night near police headquarters, department officials shut down Broadway between 13th and 15th streets.

At his news conference Monday, Newsom said law enforcement would be monitoring protests across the state. The governor said people and groups who instigate violence to further their own causes would not be overlooked, and that any acts of violence against others — by anyone — would be appropriately investigated.

“There will be accountability,” Newsom said. “We will appropriately investigate any acts of violence against others, whether those acts be perpetuated by people in positions of power and influence with badges on or uniforms, or members of the community who are attacking and assaulting in a violent manner innocent people and businesses.”

Newsom said that at the request of mayors, he has called up more than 4,500 members of the National Guard to help law enforcement officers manage protests and civil unrest. He said an additional 7,000 California Highway Patrol officers were on tactical alert throughout the state.

In Washington on Monday, the Associated Press reported that President Trump, declaring himself a “president of law and order” threatened to deploy the military to cities where, he said, governors and local officials have “failed to take necessary action” to end civil unrest, which he described as “domestic terrorism.”

San Diego police Chief David Nisleit said he had not requested support from the National Guard or any other military assistance.

Updates:

8:52 AM, Jun. 02, 2020: This story was updated with San Diego police declaring an unlawful assembly near the downtown police headquarters.

8:52 AM, Jun. 02, 2020: This story was updated with information throughout.

8:52 AM, Jun. 02, 2020: This story was updated with additional details.

8:52 AM, Jun. 02, 2020: This story was updated with additional quotes, photographs and information.

8:52 AM, Jun. 02, 2020: This story was updated with photographs and additional information.


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