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SLO leaders respond to Monday’s protest, police chief explains use of tear gas

Deanna Cantrell

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- San Luis Obispo city leaders held a press conference Tuesday afternoon in response to Monday's protest that ended with use of force by the police department.

Police Chief Deanna Cantrell defended the actions of her department, which included the use of tear gas and the firing of pepper balls.

Other speakers included Mayor Heidi Harmon, City Manager Derek Johnson and community leader and educator Dr. Leola Dublin Macmillan.

Speaking first, Cantrell went through a timeline of Monday's events.

She explained police were unsure at first who organized the demonstration, which started at Mission Plaza at 2 p.m.

Protesters were advocating for racial justice following the death of George Floyd, who was killed last week by a Minneapolis police officer.

Soon afterward they assembled, the protesters moved out onto city streets, marching throughout the downtown area.

"The march stopped at the intersection of Walnut and Santa Rosa, where officers and other law enforcement knelt with the protesters in solidarity and in support of racial justice," said Cantrell.

She added after they stopped at the police station, protesters later entered Highway 101 and began to move south.

"To get onto that freeway with vehicles going 70, 80 miles an hour is incredibly dangerous," said Cantrell. "Not only for protesters, but also for law enforcement, and for the people driving, so it's incredibly dangerous."

After being directed off the freeway onto the Marsh Street offramp, protesters once again made their way into the downtown area, before they eventually ended back in front of the police station, at the corner of Santa Rosa and Walnut streets.

Cantrell emphasized protesters were met with a line of law enforcement officers from San Luis Obispo Police Department, San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Office, and other local police departments, because of reports the march would head back onto freeway.

"We were headed into night," said Cantrell. "It was starting to get dark. Getting on that freeway in the dark would be a terrible, terrible dangerous idea."

For the next two hours, the two sides engaged in what at times was a tense confrontation.

There were often long periods of silence that were interrupted occasionally by yelling and screaming from protesters.

The chief said an order to disperse was given to the crowd over a loudspeaker at 7:14 p.m.

She added police even spoke with protest leadership in an effort to move the crowd out of the intersection.

"Captain (Jeffrey) Smith of the police department was on scene," said Cantrell. "He talked to the leader, brought the leader through the skirmish line and they talked and he said we are not trying to stop you. We are not trying to prevent you from protesting or getting your message out. What we are trying to do is protect you and protect the rest of the citizens in the city."

Cantrell mentioned the large gathering presented a safety risk to the entire city, noting it could hinder a response by police and nearby San Luis Ambulance to other potential service calls.

Nearly an hour after the crowd was asked to disperse, Cantrell said an unlawful assembly order was given by police at 8:09 p.m.

She said some members of the protest moved away and onto the sidewalk, but many others tried to push through the police line.

She said officers responded by firing an unknown amount of pepper balls into the ground.

"It's like a paintball, but it has pepper spray in it," said Cantrell. "We deployed those on the ground, in front of people, just to get them to start moving.

Cantrell then explained immediately after the pepper balls were fired, some of the protesters turned violent.

"As soon as that happened, bottles, rocks, fireworks, other objects started being thrown at law enforcement and so we used an intervention measure, which is tear gas," said Cantrell. "It was used to disperse the crowd."

She justified the action, which many people have harshly criticized in social media and other forums in the hours since.

"The purpose of that is it requires no physical touching on the part of law enforcement," said Cantrell. "It goes out. It's irritating to folks and they disperse. It was the safest way after many hours on negotiating with folks to have them be able to have their protest. We put tear gas out. The crowd did disperse."

During her address, Harmon pleaded with the community to work together to come up with solutions so an incident like this may never happen again.

"I implore you as we move forward into tomorrow and the weeks and years to come, to listen, ask questions, and to learn to join me in doing the difficult work that lies before us," said Harmon.

The mayor added she is going to ask City Council for funding to help promote social and racial equality.

"In my position of leadership, and in my privilege as a white ally, I will be advocating for funding to go directly towards policy and efforts to better serve communities of color and create more equity here in San Luis Obipso," said Harmon. "At tonight's City Council meeting, I will be asking for $100,000 to be set aside and designated now and to be used immediately towards meaningful efforts to create a city in which tear gas will never be used."

Her message to create positive change was echoed by Dublin Macmillan.

"I'm here today," said Dublin Macmillan. "I'm not representing law enforcement and I'm not representing the City of San Luis Obipso. I'm here as a black women who lives in the City of San Luis and I'm here because I believe in the possibility of San Luis becoming a just and inclusive community."

Johnson added the city supports peaceful protests and the fundamental rights to free speech.

"People have expressed deep pain over the death of George Floyd, and the historical references of injustice and racism," said Johnson. "I also have a responsibility in this community to make sure that it is safe and our employees maintain that community in a safe manner. I support the measured actions taken by our police officers, and our public safety partners, as necessary under the circumstances. I ask that everyone that is planning to protest do so in a safe manner to ensure that everyone's voice is heard in this important time."

Many cities across the country, including Santa Maria, have recently imposed a curfew as a way to attempt to create safer conditions at night.

Johnson said one could happen here in the near future.

"Ultimately making the decision as specified under the city municipal code provides that authority to the city manager and so I'll be evaluating both today and tonight and making a decision as needed," said Johnson.

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Dave Alley

Dave Alley is a reporter and anchor at News Channel 3-12. To learn more about Dave, click here.

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