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Facebook removes San Diego County group that celebrated violence against Black Lives Matter protesters

A man leans out of his pickup truck, with a Blue Lives Matter flag in the bed, yelling at protesters
Justin Haskins, founder of the Defend East County group, heckles Black Lives Matter activists in Lakeside, Calif., on Oct. 4.
(Sandy Huffaker / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Facebook has removed the 22,000-member Defend East County group from its site, the group’s founder and administrator, Justin Haskins, announced in a post to a separate Facebook group Saturday morning.

A San Diego Union-Tribune investigation of the group’s activity in August revealed that members frequently talked about inflicting violence on Black Lives Matter protesters, shared memes and videos celebrating right-wing violence against protesters and discussed the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.

John Sepulvado, a racial justice activist who lives in East County, told the Union-Tribune that the action by Facebook is the result of a coordinated campaign among several East County activists.

“We were concerned about electioneering by Defend East County and threats against women and minorities and wanted to do something safely,” Sepulvado said.

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Sepulvado said the idea for a coordinated campaign to get Facebook to take action came from the women who founded the Santee activist group East County BIPOC Coalition.

The group was harassed during an August food drive it organized in a Santee park by people who monitored the food drive from a short distance. The individuals declined to identify themselves when asked by a Union-Tribune reporter whether they were members of any organized group, but at least one of them had a “Defend East County” bumper sticker on their car.

Haskins, 37, did not respond to a request for comment Saturday. Another group Haskins administers called Working Class Patriots was renamed Saturday with the Defend East County logo featured as both its profile and banner images.

“Fascistbook shut Defend East County down,” Haskins wrote in the Facebook group, now named DEC Conservatives.

Facebook also did not return a request for comment. The social networking site announced in August it would ban “militarized social movements and violence-inducing conspiracy networks,” such as militia groups and those affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory.

A group started in response to burned banks in La Mesa has ballooned into a clearinghouse for conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremism

Haskins sought to distance his group from the militia movement in an interview with San Diego’s local NBC affiliate Wednesday that he livestreamed on the joint personal Facebook account he shares with his wife.

“I don’t want Defend East County labeled [or] associated in any way as a militia,” Haskins said in the interview. In the same interview, Haskins said he considered militias to be protected under the 2nd Amendment.

“I don’t see how a militia can be considered a bad thing,” Haskins said.

The group initially organized to defend businesses after several La Mesa businesses were burglarized and two banks set ablaze following a protest on May 30. At the time, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that it did not support any acts of vigilantism and that protecting the community is law enforcement’s responsibility.

Members of Defend East County and other affiliated Facebook groups have counter-demonstrated at a number of East County Black Lives Matter events. Though the Defend East County Facebook group swelled to more than 22,000 members, photos and videos from several protests show participation on the ground was often limited to just a couple of dozen people.

Notably, on Aug. 1, during a protest in La Mesa, several minor altercations between protesters and counter-protesters led to the arrest of a counter-protester, Ryan McAdams of Jamul, on suspicion of battery. Some counter-protesters wore large knives on their hips, and others, who wore U.S. flags in their back pockets, were involved in scuffles with protesters, videos show.

Haskins, in one of his Facebook videos, defended the actions of those who engaged with protesters that day.

“We’re a bunch of pissed-off patriots that are out there, sick and tired of our communities being attacked and threatened,” he said.

At least one former member of the group, Grey Zamudio of San Diego, was arrested in August when FBI agents executed a search warrant at his home and found unregistered rifles and firearms in his apartment and truck, as well as two silencers, according to a federal complaint.

Zamudio had written in Defend East County about owning an “SBR,” or short-barreled rifle, which, as others in the group pointed out, are illegal in California.

The San Diego Police Department also issued Zamudio a gun violence restraining order “based on recent threats of violence in numerous social media posts,” according to the complaint.

More recently, Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar and Republican Darrell Issa, candidates for the 50th Congressional District, appeared in livestreams on the group’s Facebook page with Haskins, prompting criticism from several left-leaning activists.

Sepulvado said Facebook’s action Saturday immediately made East County a safer place.

“Racism is always gonna show its ugly face, but we have shattered an important mirror of that ugliness in our community,” he said. “It is going to take them months to rebuild. At a time we don’t know if our elections are safe at the ballot box, this is a huge win against an extremist group in East County San Diego.”

A former leader in Defend East County, Mike Forzano, started his own group called Exiled Patriots. Forzano did not respond Saturday when asked if his group is still on Facebook.

Dyer writes for the San Diego Union Tribune.


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