After 100 police officers arrived in riot gear, what began as a peaceful Monday protest ended in a cloud of tear gas and at least five Cal Poly students with their hands in zip ties.
Following a stalemate between officers and protestors at the intersection of Santa Rosa and Walnut Street, law enforcement gave the group of approximately 200 protestors a five-minute warning to disperse at 7:50 p.m.
Around the same time, public policy graduate student Alex Ebrahimi and three other people sat on the ground in front of the officer barricade with their hands in the air. Five minutes later, as Ebrahimi placed a water bottle into her backpack, law enforcement “grabbed” her, she said.
“We had been asked to disperse, but there was one megaphone,” Ebrahimi said. “Nobody could hear what [the officers] were saying.”
San Luis Obispo Police Chief Deanna Cantrell said the protest was declared an “unlawful assembly” after it was determined that there were public safety risks.
Ebrahimi was the first person arrested, a process which she said felt like a daze.
“We were just trying to say we didn’t know what was going on, and we were trying to leave,” Ebrahimi said. “They said, ‘It’s too late.’”
Police then took Ebrahimi through the police line into a van and placed her in zip tie handcuffs. She was later taken to a different van, a space she said felt like a “small box,” where she remained until arriving at San Luis Obispo County Jail at 9:50 p.m. She was able to keep track of time by checking the van’s clock.
Ebrahimi said officers repeatedly joked about the protestors’ arrests, and about using force against the protesters. She recalled an officer saying, “We should have just used my plan and tear-gassed them all.”
It didn’t stop there, however.
“Every officer I came in contact with made fun of my name,” Ebrahimi said. “They didn’t address me by name — they just called me ‘The one with the really long last name.’”
Microbiology junior Leilani Ramirez, who the police also arrested, said she also could not hear the police warning to disperse.
“I know that police officers were giving instructions using a single megaphone, which is really ineffective because the majority of us couldn’t hear. And when we asked the police officers standing in front of us what they were saying, they were silent, because they were ignoring us,” Ramirez said.
“A police officer was standing in front of me with a baton, and very unprovoked, he pushed forward into me,” Ramirez said. “I didn’t let myself fall back, I kind of stood still. I wasn’t pushing him or hitting him or anything like that. I just wasn’t letting myself be pushed down. Then he grabbed my wrists and said that I was under arrest. He pulled me behind, into where the rest of the police officers were, and he put flex cuffs on me, took me to the van where they frisked me, and put me in the van.”
A Mustang News reporter close to Ramirez and on the corner of the intersection also did not hear what the police said.
“The goal of the protest was to march up to, I want to say, Foothill and Santa Rosa. We just wanted to get our message [out], to show support for the movement – the BLM movement. We were not trying to riot or anything like that – we weren’t being physical, we weren’t being violent,” Ramirez said.
Marine science senior Michael Gates was one of the other three demonstrators at the protest who sat alongside Ebrahimi in front of the police barricade. Gates said four officers wearing riot gear approached him from behind and arrested him roughly five minutes after Ebrahimi.
When Gates was placed in zip tie handcuffs and put inside a police van, he said he sat one foot away from another man who had also been arrested. At the time, Gates still wore his protective facial mask. However, when he arrived at the county jail, Gates said officers took his mask while giving him a pat-down and did not return it or offer a replacement.
Gates said he sat in a holding cell for one hour before officers told him what he had been charged with.
“The only thing they told us was, ‘You’re under arrest,'” Gates said.
After he asked multiple times, officers eventually told Gates he had been charged with “failing to disperse at the scene of a riot.” This falls under Penal Code 409 PC.
“It was just crazy how much they didn’t care,” Gates said. “For them, that was just another day on the job. They could give less of a shit what we were arrested for.”
English senior Carson Kimball was arrested around the same time as Ebrahimi and Gates. In a message to Mustang News, he said he was encouraging people to leave the protest to avoid arrest or injury, and was pouring water on people’s eyes to reduce the effects of tear gas. Police arrested him when he put himself between them and a woman of color who said she was not going to move, he wrote.
He said officers neither read him his Miranda rights nor told him what he had been charged with until he was placed in a holding cell. Kimball also said officers confiscated his phone and and held it as evidence.
“I was sitting in the street with my hands up, and I was arrested without warning,” business administration senior Abby Landis wrote in a statement to Mustang News.
“At the protest yesterday, there were hundreds of officers in riot gear, armed with tear gas and guns, and itching to arrest innocent students. This has got to stop. The police are not here to protect, nor are they here to serve. They simply wanted to go home because they were tired, and decided to teargas innocent civilians so they could have their way. If their goal was truly to protect us from a dangerous situation like the Chief of Police claims—why were the police more dangerous than the students who simply wanted to exercise their First Amendment Rights? If hundreds of officers didn’t show up armed to the teeth, we would have peacefully went home,” Landis wrote.
Ebrahimi, Gates, Ramirez, Landis and Kimball were held in the jail until approximately midnight. Although Gates and Kimball were unable to access their phone contacts to call anyone, friends who had seen police arrest them at the protest arrived to pick them up from jail.
Gates said police officers were “condescending” and “humiliating” throughout the process, waiting hours before disclosing how he could leave.
“They didn’t tell us how to get out,” Gates said. “They didn’t tell us we were waiting on someone to come pick us up.”
Although Ebrahimi was able to write down contacts from her phone before she arrived at the jail, she said the process was “disorganized” and “chaotic.”
“They left us in a cell, even though we had people in the lobby ready to pick us up for two hours,” Ebrahimi said.
According to Gates, there was a stark difference in officers’ behavior during the protest’s daylight hours compared to its nighttime hours.
“That day, earlier, the cops knelt with us. Four hours later, they were shooting tear gas,” Gates said. “It was all a show for them.”
Ebrahimi said Monday’s protest reflected other ones she has seen across the United States, characterized largely by peaceful protestors and aggressive police.
“I think we’ve been seeing in national protests that police are inciting violence, and are a part of an inherently violent institution,” Ebrahimi said.
Ebrahimi said while in jail she and her other cell mates discussed how, although they were arrested, their privilege still worked in their favor.
“We know that we’re privileged – we knew we would get out from a night in jail. Sandra Bland could not,” Ebrahimi said.
Despite their arrests, Ebrahimi, Gates and Kimball said they will continue to show up for local protests.
“I have experienced police brutality firsthand, and now I want to prevent it even more,” Ebrahimi said.
The San Luis Obispo Police Department was not available for comment at the time the story was published.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that one of the protestors, Alex Ebrahimi, arrived at the jail at around 8:50 p.m. Ebrahimi arrived at the jail around 9:50 p.m. The article has been updated.