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Protesters defy Costa Mesa curfew, meet police presence in tense standoff at South Coast Plaza

A vocal group of protesters demonstrated against the police involvement in the death of George Floyd on Monday.
A vocal group of protesters demonstrated against the police involvement in the death of George Floyd, which delayed the reopening of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa on Monday.
(Photo by Ben Brazil)

A protest nearly descended into violence on Monday night after a series of tense standoffs between police and protesters outside South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

Protesters originally met at the corner of Bear Street and Sunflower Avenue across from South Coast Plaza at about 8 p.m. to demonstrate against racism and Minneapolis police officers’ involvement in the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was under arrest.

The protesters gathered in defiance of a second overnight curfew put in place by city officials after looting and rioting shook neighboring Huntington Beach and Santa Ana over the weekend.

Protesters chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and held signs like “Help I can’t Breathe” and “No one is free until all of us are free.”

Police stand on the corner of South Coast Plaza at Sunflower Avenue and Bristol Street, guarding against a demonstration over the death of George Floyd.
Police stand on the corner of South Coast Plaza at Sunflower Avenue and Bristol Street, guarding against a demonstration over the death of George Floyd.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The protest began peacefully, with many stating they hoped for a protest devoid of violence. Some hoped to provoke solidarity with police.

“It’s not us against cops, it’s us against racists,” said Adam Robinson, 21, of Costa Mesa.

Fears of anticipated civil unrest at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza, following reports a protest was being planned there for Monday evening, delayed a June 1 reopening.

By 9 p.m., roughly 100 protesters had gathered onsite, and the police presence had swelled. Officers in riot gear waited in the mall parking lot next to floodlights about 100 yards away from the crowd, which soon moved across the street and stood about 10 feet from the officers, chanting and beckoning them to “take a knee.”

Some in the crowd argued with others about that moment of symbolism, meant to unify the protesters with the police. One of the officers in charge said he would possibly take a knee or shake the hand of one of the protesters if they came to an agreement and would disburse afterward.

One protester against the symbolic moment yelled, “Stop licking boots!” Another protester said, “Will it bring George back?”

At one point, a man tried to sneak past the police line onto the mall parking lot, but he was detained by police. That was the night’s only arrest.

Many who gathered to protest said they believed an original posting for the event on social media was meant to incite violence and wasn’t posted in good faith by protesters. Some believed antagonists of the movement had posted the original event.

Rashaan Burns, 21, of Costa Mesa, said the fact that the original posting scheduled the protest at South Coast Plaza was conspicuous because it would be an ideal area for looters.

But Burns and many of the others who showed up decided they would turn what may have been a fake event aimed at promoting violence into a peaceful protest.

“I just want peace,” Burns said.

Burns, who tried to set up the unifying moment with police, said he was disappointed that the group could not come to a consensus. He was hoping for a symbolic moment between the police and protesters.

“Moments like those inspire other cops to step forward and be better,” he said.

The protesters eventually disengaged from the standoff at the corner of South Coast Drive and walked down to the usually busy intersection of Bristol Street and Sunflower, where there was another standoff with police.

Then the group walked toward Alton Parkway and Bristol and there was another momentary standoff. After a few tense moments, they headed back.

By 11 p.m., there were about 60 people at the corner of Sunflower and Bristol.

A police helicopter circled and flashed its lights as police closed in and wouldn’t let the protesters leave the area for a period. While the helicopter told protesters to return to their cars, some officers wouldn’t let protesters back to their vehicles. As one protester walked back to where he said his vehicle was, an officer pointed a rubber bullet gun at him as he was ordered to turn around.

The protest dissipated at 11:30 pm.

“We are thankful for the peaceful demonstration that occurred last night in our city and the support we had from the community, city and local law enforcement agencies,” said Costa Mesa Police Department Chief Bryan Glass, who had the Santa Ana Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department as backup.

The police department said the curfew has been “suspended while CMPD monitors for any potential activity.”

Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley said on Tuesday that she was pleased with how the city’s police department handled demonstrators, far calmer and fewer in number than what officials had anticipated after hearing social media posts that referred to riots and looting.

A small but vocal group of protesters occupy a corner of Bear Street and Sunflower Avenue in Costa Mesa.
A small but vocal group of protesters occupy a corner of Bear Street and Sunflower Avenue in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

She described the scene, which she observed remotely, as nonviolent and respectful.

“Everyone was prepared, and we did a good job,” Foley said. “Law enforcement personally exercised restraint and let people who wanted to protest do so peacefully and respectfully. There was a strong effort to deter any agitators.”

City Manager Lori Ann Farrell Harrison declared a local state of emergency when calling for the curfews on Sunday and Monday. City Council members will decide Tuesday evening whether to continue the emergency declaration for the time being, should future actions needed to be taken, Foley said.

“There are still ongoing events happening throughout the county this week, so we’re going to stay at the ready and continue to have dialogue with the community groups who really care about social justice issues,” Foley said.

Costa Mesa had planned to conduct unconscious bias training for police officers and City Hall employees earlier this year, as part of a routine training, but the program was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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