Fear of the left

Police ordinance, antifa investigation suggest authorities in Sacramento are more concerned with leftist groups than the far right

Hundreds of demonstators took to the streets of Sacramento on March 22, 2018, four days after the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark.

Hundreds of demonstators took to the streets of Sacramento on March 22, 2018, four days after the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark.

Photo by Kris Hooks

This is an updated version of a story that appears in the February 7, 2019, issue.

Berry Accius has a vivid memory from when Jeff Sessions came to town last spring.

Inside the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel, the then-U.S. attorney general was telling the California Peace Officers Association about his boss’ plan to sue the state over its immigration protections. Accius and other demonstrators protested that message outside; then some white guy surrounded by MAGA caps called him the n-word.

“They ran like cowards and the police stopped me,” Accius said. “At every protest the police are facing us and their backs are to them. Every protest.”

As Sacramento prepares to learn whether the two officers who fatally shot Stephon Clark will face criminal charges, the messaging from a police-drafted emergency ordinance is that local law enforcement is more concerned about the rowdy left than the far right.

Local progressives flagged the emergency ordinance as threatening their ability to express and defend themselves at protests, prompting city manager Howard Chan to pull it from the January 22 City Council agenda.

Submitted as an emergency ordinance, the measure would have taken effect immediately if approved by two-thirds of the council, making it illegal for those participating in public demonstrations to carry weapons such as firearms and knives, as well as bats, rocks, glass bottles and projectile launchers. But the measure also seeks to ban lengths of wood, plastic or metal pipes that are more than a quarter-inch thick and shields.

Authorities identified these as the “improvised weapons” of choice of anti-fascists protesting a pro-Trump rally outside the state Capitol in June 2016. The rally quickly descended into chaos as members of the Traditionalist Worker Party and Golden State Skinheads engaged in roving brawls with antifa activists.

The latter say they were simply defending themselves from the violent white supremacists they came to protest. The California Highway Patrol’s investigation identified several neo-Nazis and skinheads armed with knives, but mostly recommended charges for counter-protesters, court documents show.

A judge last month determined there was enough evidence to bind three of those counter-protesters for arraignment on February 13, though one of the defendants, Porfirio Paz, had his charges reduced to misdemeanors.

“We intend to fight the charges,” said attorney Ronald Cruz, who represents Yvonne Felarca, a leader with the Bay Area leftist group By Any Means Necessary.

While the violence that erupted outside the Capitol more than two years ago helped anticipate a rise in violent white nationalism, formal blame has largely been apportioned to the far left. Of the four people facing criminal charges, only one is associated with white nationalism, and his case recently ended in a mistrial.

As for why the emergency ordinance was fast-tracked to the council’s agenda in the first place, a police spokesman suggested in an email to SN&R that the department was preparing for unrest.

“Our police department is committed to making sure we keep our community safe during all protests,” Sgt. Vance Chandler wrote. “Further, we want to ensure that we assist those who want to peacefully excercise their First Amendment Right. This ordinance was a priority for us because we anticipate potential protests in the near future.”

Such emergency ordinances, which have fewer opportunities for public deliberation and take effect immediately if adopted, are rare in the city.

“I’ve never seen an emergency ordinance in my six years on the council,” Councilman Steve Hansen told SN&R.

January 25 marked 90 days since the Police Department submitted its investigative report on the Clark shooting to the Sacramento County district attorney’s office, which will determine whether the two officers who shot the unarmed black father committed any crime. The DA’s office says on its website that it attempts to announce those determinations within 90 days of receiving the investigative report, but there is no formal deadline. The DA’s office recently said it would need more time to complete its review due to the voluminous case file and because it received additional information from the state attorney general’s office, which is conducting its own criminal review of the shooting.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said during a press conference last week that he believed his office’s criminal review was “not too far from the horizon.”

“We know it’s coming,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg added at the same press conference.

Clark, suspected of breaking car windows, was shot several times holding a cellphone while standing in his grandmother’s backyard. The March 2018 slaying of the 22-year-old sent thousands of protesters streaming onto freeways and body-chaining access to the Golden One Center. Smaller weekly protests have continued outside the DA’s office, but community leaders and public officials are girding for increased tensions if District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert clears the officers of any criminal wrongdoing, as she has in every other officer-involved shooting that has crossed her desk.

The DA’s office hasn’t prosecuted an officer for a wrongful shooting of a civilian in at least 30 years, according to an SN&R review of public records and news reports.

In making its case for greater restrictions on civil disobedience, the Police Department said in a staff report that the city incurred an estimated $800,000 in damages in the weeks after the Clark shooting, and another $68,000 in the aftermath of the 2016 Capitol melee, “all of which involved individuals using improvised weapons and damaging property.”

“They don’t want to lose money this time around,” Accius said. “That’s why they tried to put this ordinance down. … Because they don’t want the city to burn down.”

The police staff report included an exhibit summarizing nine protests resulting in injury or property damage over a two-year period, including three in the city and two in Berkeley. In all nine cases, the summaries indicated that leftists were as responsible, or more so, for the damage than whoever they were protesting.

The summary of the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., for instance, did not mention that a white supremacist plowed a vehicle into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of people who were there protesting white nationalists.

“A rally with both alt-right and counter-protesters erupted into a riot resulting in multiple acts of violence and vandalism,” the police summary read.

Along with the 2016 Capitol riot, the exhibit highlighted two other local events: an April 2018 Black Lives Matter protest outside the DA’s office that damaged a vehicle window and resulted in the unrelated arrest of transgender activist Ebony Harper; and a March 2017 Make America Great Again march at McKinley Park, where two counter-protesters were arrested for allegedly slashing tires.

A council committee effectively sent the ordinance back to the drawing board Tuesday afternoon, after several speakers zeroed in on language that could affect religious and political expression and lead to selective enforcement if adopted as written.

Amar Shergill of the American Sikh Political Action Committee told council members the ordinance would prevent members of the Sikh community who carry small ceremonial daggers called “kirapan” from legally participating in public demonstrations in the city.

Tanya Faison of Black Lives Matter Sacramento said that she has had things thrown at her and been threatened with sexual assault and dog attacks for her social activism, and carries pepper-spray with her for protection, which would be illegal to possess at a protest under the ordinance.

“I am not safe with this ordinance,” she said.

Betty Williams, president of the Greater Sacramento chapter of the NAACP, said the ordinance would have prevented her association from erecting its banner at the recent Martin Luther King Jr. march, adding, “Dr. King would not be able to have a peaceful protest in Sacramento.”

Swayed by the public testimony and its own concerns about timing and whether the ordinance was necessary, the council’s Law and Legislation Committee sent the measure back to the Police Department for retooling.

“I don’t see a pressing need for this,” Hansen said, echoing two other council members on the committee.

It’s unclear when—or if—the item will return.

Retired Sacramento County sheriff’s official Milo Fitch said he understands the Police Department’s desire to restrict what people bring to protests. A former crowd control instructor as a member of his department’s mounted unit, Fitch said there were occasions when people threw marbles on the ground in an attempt to make the horses fall.

But Fitch said it’s also important for officers to establish a non-aggressive tone with demonstrators. He recommended that officers don’t wear face shields or riot gear until circumstances required it. And, contrary to Accius’ experience, Fitch said demonstrating neutrality is key.

“As law enforcement, you don’t want to be on one side or another,” Fitch added. “You want to keep the peace—be part of the solution.”

Relations between law enforcement and liberal groups may not be easing in the near future, however. The local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Black Lives Matter teamed up to sue the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department for blocking the latter group from its Facebook page.

Sacramento Area Congregations Together held crisis response training seminars with faith leaders and community organizers on January 31 and February 2 in anticipation of a decision in the Clark case. Mayor Steinberg and police Chief Daniel Hahn, meanwhile, said at last week’s press conference with Becerra that they were meeting regularly with community leaders. Hahn added that he would do everything he could to ensure people are able to protest safely.

Accius said the recent history of social unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Oakland shows that when injustice sows discord, people of color are the ones who get pushed out.

Citing the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King, Accius said, “Blacks were so displaced after that it was ridiculous. So who really won?”