Oct. 27–Protesters and the NAACP are asking a federal judge to ban law enforcement from arresting people who have been gathering at an El Cajon shopping center, where police fatally shot an unarmed black man last month.
U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino heard arguments on the issue Wednesday and will rule on the matter in the coming days.
Ever since Alfred Olango was killed by an El Cajon police officer at the Broadway Village Shopping Center on Sept. 27, the parking lot has been the site of frequent protests and vigils. Olango was shot after he pointed a cylindrical object at the officer; the object turned out to be a vaping device.
Several times, sheriff’s deputies in riot gear have broken up the protests after El Cajon police officers have declared them “unlawful assemblies.” Protesters who did not disband were arrested.
The San Diego branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, along with 11 protesters and three children, filed a request for the injunction in San Diego federal court. They contend the Sheriff’s Department and police violated the protesters’ right to free speech and assembly and their right protecting them from search and seizure without probable cause.
They point to an incident on Oct. 1, when about 200 people had gathered at the shooting site, near Los Panchos taco shop, according to the lawsuit. By midnight, about 80 people remained.
Police said a fight broke out among a few of the protesters and an officer heard someone say he was going to get a gun.
“Sensing this shift in the demeanor of the crowd, and out of concern for community safety, officers declared an unlawful assembly and ordered the group to disperse, ” police Lt. Rob Ransweiler said in a statement on Oct. 2.
Two lines of deputies in riot gear, some with dogs, blocked two of three exits in the parking lot, telling the crowd to disperse, witnesses said.
About half of the demonstrators left. The others refused to leave, including several who were praying, and they were arrested.
According to California law, an unlawful assembly is when two or more people gather to do an unlawful act, or do a lawful act in a “violent, boisterous or tumultuous manner.” Anyone who takes part in this activity, or who does not leave when ordered to do so, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
More arrests occurred on Oct. 16 as law enforcement tried to break up what they declared was an unlawful assembly, according to the lawsuit. Earlier that evening at a nearby location, protesters had blocked traffic and someone slashed a vehicle’s tires, authorities said.
Attorney Bryan Pease questioned why police didn’t just arrest the people causing the problems instead of making everyone leave. He said the law should be interpreted to mean that once the unlawful conduct is taken care of, the assembly should be allowed to continue.
Chief Deputy County Counsel George Brewster said the idea that deputies can “cherrypick agitators while leaving everyone else alone is a very difficult test for law enforcement. How do you decide? … It’s an impossible task.”
Pease also accused law enforcement of arbitrarily declaring unlawful assemblies after midnight so the officers can go home.
“It almost seems like there’s a defacto midnight curfew on these assemblies,” Pease said.
Attorney Steven Boehmer, who is representing the city of El Cajon, told the judge the police were following the law, and that the protesters want to rewrite the law. He pointed to other peaceful protests at the site and around the city that were not declared unlawful assemblies.
“There is no pattern or practice by officers … to quell peaceful protests,” Boehmer said.
El Cajon police said the shopping center’s business owners and property manager complained the demonstrations were hurting business, and police asked people on Oct. 15 to stop gathering there. At the order of police, demonstrators removed the memorial that included a shade tent, chairs, photographs, mementos, candles and barbecues that had been erected at the spot.
Police cars continue to stake out the area and anyone who is not a patron is threatened with arrest, Pease said.
Pease said that according to the state constitution, shopping centers open to the general public must allow free speech under reasonable guidelines.
Carl Box, who was arrested on Oct. 17 after he and a friend went to pay their respects at the shooting site, accused police of using intimidation tactics. He said he’d like to see the police and community come together.
“There is stigma on both sides. Sometimes they look at us one way, and we only see the badge. … We just want to be treated as humans,” Box said.
The protesters are asking the Sheriff’s Department and El Cajon police to pay damages to plaintiffs “in an amount to make them whole,” as well as punitive damages of $1 million or an amount sufficient to make an example of them and discourage similar arrests.
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