Column: They’re fed up with the ‘tyranny’ of face masks. But Portland? That’s about ‘law and order’

People walk around the state Capitol on Saturday as part of the "United We Stand" rally.
Most of the people at Saturday’s United We Stand rally at the state Capitol in Sacramento came to denounce Gov. Gavin Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
(Erika D. Smith / Los Angeles Times)

If there’s one thing I had hoped most Californians could agree on, it’s that federal agents snatching American citizens off the streets, throwing them into unmarked vehicles, taking them to undisclosed locations for interrogation and then releasing them without an explanation is a bad thing.

In particular, I thought that maybe — just maybe — the most conservative of Republicans, who are constantly on guard for some unwelcome overreach by government, would be like-minded about this.

But no. That’s not where we are in 2020.

Hundreds of people — from anti-vaxxers to conspiracy theorists to concerned parents and understandably irked business owners — gathered Saturday in the midday Sacramento heat to gripe about Gov. Gavin Newsom. It was dubbed the “United We Stand” rally, and indeed those who attended were pretty united in their grievances about the state’s inconsistent and often unclear response to COVID-19.


They ticked off Newsom’s worst offenses: Ordering schools and retailers to close and then reopen and then close again. Shutting down churches and banning singing. Forcing everyone in the state to cover their faces after initially swearing, like public health officials did, that no one needed masks.

“There’s too much government control,” summed up Donna Hogue, a business owner from Granite Bay. “There’s too much overreach by the governor. The masks. All of it.”

The tyranny.

Donna Hogue of Granite Bay holds a sign expressing on her views on face masks at the "United We Stand" rally in Sacramento.
Donna Hogue, a business owner from Granite Bay, holds a sign expressing her views on face masks Saturday at the United We Stand rally in Sacramento.
(Erika D. Smith / Los Angeles Times)

And speaking of tyranny, apparently what has been happening in Portland, Ore., for the past few weeks isn’t it. Never mind the mysterious federal agents gassing and shooting flash grenades at Black Lives Matter protesters every night.

Stories abound about people who have been detained by agents who refused to give their names. There have been beatings, too, including of a protester who suffered a skull fracture after an agent hit him in the face with a projectile.

Ostensibly, President Trump sent the agents there to protect a federal courthouse, which has been under siege to one degree or another since a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, setting off a national reckoning on racial injustice.


But increasingly intense battles between agents lobbing chemical gas and protesters tossing fireworks have been fought blocks away from the courthouse, raising questions about whether Trump is trying to drum up made-for-TV violence. And indeed, a new round of protests exploded over the weekend, with residents of Los Angeles, Seattle, Baltimore and several other cities taking to the streets over the presence of federal agents.

Several legal challenges are winding their way through the courts, and investigations are underway. In the meantime, there’s no doubt that what’s happening in downtown Portland — and soon, if Trump is to be believed, on the streets of Oakland — is a clear example of government overreach.

And yet, when I brought this up in Sacramento, Hogue wasn’t convinced.

“What gives people the right to riot for 53 days in a row?” she asked.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I told her, but nonetheless a fair point.

Susan Potter, a business owner from Sacramento, chimed in. “There’s got to be a line somewhere,” she said, nodding at Hogue. Also a fair point.

But, I asked, what about the federal agents abducting people without giving their names? And the interrogations? Isn’t that government overreach?

Hogue shook her head. “They’re arresting for probable cause. They’re booking them. They’re letting them go,” she said.

(This isn’t entirely accurate, but moving on.)

“I also think it’s sending a good message,” said Dan Beck, of the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, where he’s worried about his kids not being able to attend school in the fall. “As they’re getting released, they’re going, ‘OK, now I’ve been charged with a federal crime. And maybe I should go back to my apartment and play Xbox.”


Bottom line, Hogue said, she just trusts federal agents, who are merely doing their duty to protect federal property that was paid for by taxpayers.

“No one’s being mean. It’s not like they’re disappearing,” she said. “You know, it’s just what the law does. A lot has to do with law and order. That’s why those two words go together.”

People gathered Saturday in the midday Sacramento heat to gripe about Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Hundreds of people — from anti-vaxxers to conspiracy theorists to concerned parents and understandably irked business owners — gathered Saturday in the midday Sacramento heat to gripe about Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Erika D. Smith / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve heard similar things from others in recent days, as I’ve traveled through some of the more conservative swaths of California. The cognitive dissonance is disheartening yet somehow also predictable.

Whether they know it or not, many people are parroting Trump. Badly lagging in the polls and trailing Joe Biden as the election nears, the president has been desperate to create a distraction from his administration’s abysmal handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. So he has doubled down on selling himself as the “law and order” commander in chief, arguing that a crackdown of the sort that’s happening in Portland is needed in “out of control” Democrat-led cities — at any cost.

But what is any cost?

What does it say when liberals like me can’t even find common ground about federal agents violating people’s civil rights with someone who is carrying a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, or with someone who nods appreciatively at a sign that says “Government is the root of our problems”?


I didn’t see a single federal agent in camouflage or riot gear guarding the many federal buildings near the Capitol on Saturday. But if they had been there, and if they had gone after protesters in the same aggressive manner that they have in Portland, I have to believe that the hundreds in attendance would’ve changed their minds.

Real tyranny shouldn’t be partisan.