On June 1, protesters took to the streets of San Luis Obispo to speak out against racial injustices in the United States. Those protesters were eventually dispersed by a contingent of law enforcement officers from local agencies, the Sheriff’s department, and the California Department of Corrections.
Mustang News photojournalist and environmental science and management graduate student Diego Rivera, who covered the June 1 protests, fact checked Cantrell’s explanation of the protests escalation.
“As far as the gas goes, we waited a long time, we negotiated a whole lot,” Cantrell said. “It was the safest way after many hours of negotiating with folks to have them be able to have their protest.”
The quote above was given by Cantrell in response to a question asking why the tear gas was necessary and if the law enforcement had any other recourse. Earlier in the news conference Cantrell said, “We tried to reach the event’s organizers but it was difficult finding out who exactly was organizing it … I did not personally talk to any of them” (4:54 of the press conference video posted by the City of San Luis Obispo).
The next time that officers addressed the crowd, according to Cantrell, was when the group of protesters exited the freeway and law enforcement issued a dispersal order.
“We set up a very hard skirmish line at Marsh … an announcement was given, a dispersal order was given at that point of an unlawful protest,” Cantrell said.
It was not clear to all protesters that a dispersal order was issued at that time.
The protesters exited the freeway at Marsh Street and continued until they reached a police barricade at Santa Rosa and Walnut Streets where the only form of direct negotiation between police and organizers took place.
“Captain Smith from the police department was on scene, he talked to the leader, he brought the leader through the skirmish line” Cantrell said.
After the only direct conversation between police and event organizers, the dispersal order was repeated 8 times, according to Cantrell.
Multiple protesters on the scene noted the announcements were far too quiet for the entire crowd to hear due to a California Highway Patrol aircraft, one helicopter and one propeller plane flying overhead.
“We had called for the helicopter to move out and it did, and called for the plane to move out and it did … We certainly tried everything that we could to make sure everybody heard that announcement,” Cantrell said.
In the video taken minutes before actions were taken by law enforcement officers, the helicopter and propeller plane can be heard overhead.
The first image below is time-stamped at 6:11, while the second image is time-stamped at 7:38, indicating that not only was there still an aircraft circling above, but those aircraft were circling the entire length of the protest and into the night.
“You don’t have to get injured, I’m not going to get injured … it’s irritating to folks and they disperse … it was the safest way,” Cantrell said.
The police officers were equipped with gas masks, as tear gas causes excessive tearing, burning, blurred vision, redness, runny nose, swelling, difficulty swallowing, chest tightness, choking sensation, wheezing, skin rash, nausea and vomiting, according to the Center for Disease Control. Tear gas can also cause blindness, glaucoma, and respiratory failure.
A protester, who asked to remain anonymous, said “the tear gas felt like it was suffocating and stinging at the same time. It stung my lungs, throat, mouth, nose, eyes, and skin. Our streets are dangerous enough, we have pedestrians that are killed all the time by cars.”
“A decision was finally made to start moving the crowd back. At that point we deployed pepper balls, it’s little, like a paint ball but it has pepper spray in it, we deployed those on the ground in front of people,” Cantrell said.
In the video below an officer is highlighted by a red circle. The shot taken by this officer can be seen flashing out of the muzzle of his weapon, and the pepper round can be seen flying through the air, striking Aidan McGloin, a Mustang News reporter recording the video three stories up on the balcony of a nearby building.
A protester, who asked to remain anonymous, described their experience being hit by pepper balls while retreating from law enforcement.
“As I was running away from the police after they pushed back protesters, I was hit in the back by a [pepper] bullet…as we stood there nonviolently, police continued to shoot us with pepper balls. I and the others were hit multiple times, a few of them nearly missing our faces,” the source said.
Cantrell also indicated with this statement that this was the first action taken by police. However before shooting pepper balls, a singular concerted push was made by the officers that allowed them to overwhelm and arrest seated protestors, causing the rest to panic and run. In the video below, captured at the beginning of action, officers can be seen macing protesters and bashing seated protesters with riot shields before deploying pepper rounds. Use of mace and riot shields was not mentioned at the news briefing.
“If you look at any of the photos or videos last night, just one line of officers across the street is 30. And so two sides is 60,” Cantrell said.
During the question and answer portion of the press conference Cantrell stated approximately 130 officers were on scene when the crowd was dispersed. As the quote indicates, Cantrell claims that 60 officers were needed to cover the intersection, 30 on each side. However, in the photo below, the line is 24 long, which would reduce the number of officers to 48 on both sides of the street. Additionally, Walnut Street is a two lane street while Santa Rosa is a four lane state highway, both sides of the intersection are not the same length. On top of that, most of the protesters were on the south side of the intersection (the side facing the line in the photo below), with some spilling onto the east side of the intersection on Walnut Street. Very few people were on the other two sides.