Police say unlawful assembly during Pacific Beach protests applied to counterprotesters only

After a clash with anti-fascist, SDPD officers take up positions on Mission Boulevard
After a clash with anti-fascist demonstrators, San Diego police officers take up positions on Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach on Saturday.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some observers questions whether police showed bias in the way they responded to Trump supporters versus counterprotesters, some of whom identified as anti-fascist


When San Diego police declared an unlawful assembly during dueling protests in Pacific Beach on Saturday, Trump supporters stood on one side of a line of officers. Counterprotesters, some of whom identified as anti-fascist, stood on the other side of the police formation.

The Union-Tribune reported that both sides had skirmished quite a bit that day.

But it turns out the order to disperse applied only to one side — the group of counterprotesters, some of whom threw bottles, rocks and eggs at officers, a police spokesman said Monday.

Three counterprotesters were arrested: two adults who police said failed to disperse and a juvenile accused of assaulting an officer.

The police response to the two demonstrations raised questions among some observers about whether police showed bias based on race and/or ideology.

NAACP San Diego Branch President Francine Maxwell said she received calls from community members who “felt some of the officers were favoring one side over the other.”

Police spokesman Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said: “The goal of the department was to maintain peace regardless of ideology and belief.” In an email, he added that officers respond to demonstrations based on the actions of the protesters they encounter.

“We understand community members want their voices heard and the First Amendment protects this right,” Takeuchi said in the email. “However, when a group begins exhibiting violent behavior such as throwing eggs, rocks and bottles, we will take steps to stop the violence. The behavior of the crowd dictates our actions.”

He said the crowd of Trump supporters didn’t throw items at counterprotesters or officers.

Kylee Belanger, director of the San Diego National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer Program, who documented Saturday’s police response, said she believes the Police Department showed clear bias. She said the “combat” on both sides of the protests appeared mutual but police didn’t deal with Trump supporters in the same way they policed counterprotesters.

She said Trump supporters walked around a line of officers to the side where counterprotesters were and heckled them. She pointed to an instance in which she said a Trump supporter walked up to a woman writing with chalk on the road in front of a line of officers and pushed her down. Officers “let him go back through their line without repercussions,” Belanger said.

“I strongly believe that not declaring unlawful assembly for both sides was clear bias,” Belanger said.

The tense encounter between Trump supporters and counterprotesters, who included Black Lives Matter supporters and self-described anti-fascists, began about 1 p.m. near Crystal Pier. The counterprotesters held signs that denounced President Donald Trump, as well as one that said, “No Nazis in PB.”

Even before the Trump rally began, some from the anti-fascist side got into sporadic screaming matches with Trump supporters along the boardwalk. At one point, someone in the anti-fascist group got into a skirmish with a man on the boardwalk.

By mid-afternoon, the two groups, each of which included about 100 people, ended up in the intersection of Mission Boulevard and Hornblend Street. Lines of officers separated the two sides, with more officers — some in tactical gear facing the north end of Mission Boulevard where the counterproteters were gathered.

Police declared an unlawful assembly around 2:30 p.m. and tweeted that officers had been struck by a glass bottle that was thrown at them. Police also said counterprotesters hurled eggs and rocks, and pepper sprayed officers.

In response, police advanced in a line to push the group back. They also shot pepper balls to disperse the counterprotesters, Takeuchi said.

At some point someone in the crowd smashed a front window at a nearby Sketchers shoe store.

Takeuchi said five officers suffered minor injuries but none of them required medical attention.

Eventually, the counterprotesters dispersed. By 4:30 p.m., Trump supporters reconvened on the boardwalk where they had marched. At times they yelled profanities and clashed with passersby.

David Loy, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties, said Saturday’s police response builds upon long-standing questions about biased-based policing in San Diego and beyond. He pointed to last week’s deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol. He said the riot shows White and right-wing protesters are “underpoliced” while protesters of color and protesters who take a stand against police brutality and racism are overpoliced.

He called the bias “systemic and structural.”

He couldn’t recall whether he had heard of other instances in which an unlawful assembly order applied to certain protesters only.

In a statement issued late Monday afternoon, Mayor Todd Gloria said violence will not be tolerated in San Diego. “There will be consequences for those who bring that kind of behavior to our city,” he said.

He appealed to the public for help in identifying anyone who was violent during the demonstrations in Pacific Beach on Saturday and asked that tipsters contact police.

He also urged protesters to use caution in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The City of San Diego will always support the people’s right to demonstrate and voice their opinions, while taking measures to keep the peace and prevent violence,” Gloria said. “However, I want to remind San Diegans that COVID-19 continues to kill thousands of Americans every day, and the smartest thing all of us can do right now is stay home.”