BLM Protesters: Sheriff’s Deputies Ignored MAGA Supporters’ Assaults At Poway Rallies
When Rancho Bernardo High School senior Gabriella Sanchez-Moore heard students from a nearby campus had organized Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests in Poway in November, she was all in.
“I’ve always attended a school that does not have a very large black student population,” said the 17-year-old Sanchez-Moore. “And it’s just important to me that these students know they’re being heard and they’re being listened to and we’re going to fight for them.”
She believed the fight meant carrying signs blasting racist policing or then-President Donald Trump. But she never anticipated what she ended up experiencing on the street.
Sanchez-Moore said Trump and Make America Great Again (MAGA) supporters converged on the protest, yelling racist epithets and threatening violence. Some followed through on their threats by pushing a teen BLM supporter onto the street, she said.
San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies were on the scene. But, Sanchez-Moore said, they did little to protect the young woman and refused to file a report.
“When she was able to get away from that crowd, she was crying and she was trying to talk to the police and ask for help and trying to explain to the police what happened,” she said. “But the police ended up telling her that because she was a minor and she didn't have a parent there, they weren't going to do anything.”
Sheriff Bill Gore told KPBS he is unfamiliar with that particular incident. But he said deputies have filed 11 reports stemming from protests in Poway since May. He could not provide a breakdown of how many were on behalf of BLM protesters or MAGA counter protesters.
Gore went on to say that the department screens all deputy applicants for ties to white supremacist or far-right groups. He said the vetting process continues once they are on the force, which is increasingly important given that media and civil rights advocates have identified a number of law enforcement officers from departments nationwide who were involved in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“We work on it constantly in our training,” Gore said. “We talk about safe, equitable, fair and unbiased policing.”
Still, some BLM supporters wonder if all deputies have actually absorbed that training. They contend deputies not only failed to intervene in the face of MAGA counter protesters’ physical aggression and loud threats in Poway, but seem to sympathize.
Jennifer, 56, who only wanted her first name used because she fears retribution, said one day in November she saw members of the group Defend East County (DEC) encircle the teen protesters. The DEC members were wearing knives around their waists, carrying a noise machine and screaming at the teens, she said.
But Jennifer said deputies who were close by appeared unmoved by the scene.
“The attitude was, if you come out here to protest, this is what you get,” she said. “So, no differentiation between what's exercising First Amendment rights and what is incompatible with exercising First Amendment rights, like intimidation and bullying.”
DEC is a loosely organized group with a large social media following that formed after a racial justice protest in La Mesa during last year’s Memorial Day weekend devolved into rioting and looting.
The group’s leaders say it exists to protect residents and businesses of East County. However, its followers have espoused right-wing conspiracy theories, made numerous racist statements and called for violence against BLM protesters. DEC leader Justin Haskins did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
Later that day in November, Jennifer said MAGA and the DEC counter protesters charged at a BLM protester in her 20s and shoved her onto the street. Jennifer said she asked a deputy at the event to file a police report but he refused.
“His position was, 'Until all of you leave and this girl is the only person left, I’m not doing anything, I refuse to call another officer,'” Jennifer said. “And at that point, all witnesses are gone.”
'Unbecoming conduct' or 'intelligence gathering?'
Gore said there’s a reason the deputy didn’t file the report immediately.
“Unfortunately, we didn't have enough deputies there,” Gore said “And to the limited manpower we had, to go in and try to take a police report would further inflame the situation.”
But Jennifer pointed to a video of that same deputy telling MAGA and DEC people just moments later: “Don’t worry, I’ve got you,” as an example of deputies’ bias toward one side.
Gore said the video must be viewed in context. The sheriff said the deputy was trying to keep both sides apart while listening to a complaint from a DEC counter protester.
“The deputy, best I could tell, is saying, 'I've got this, I've got it. Don't worry, I've got it.' In other words, 'We're going to get these groups separated. And you don't have to do it,'” Gore said. “That's how I interpret it. And that's what the deputy says his intentions were.”
Still, Sanchez-Moore said she can’t shake her belief that sheriff’s deputies favor the far-right because of what she observed one day following a protest.
”We saw a group of the MAGA supporters talking to the cops and they were fist bumping and shaking hands and laughing,” Sanchez-Moore said.
Gore said that what Sanchez-Moore construed as glad handing is better characterized as an effort to diffuse the situation and intelligence gathering on the deputy’s part
“If somebody comes up and they want to fist-bump you, it's hard to put yourself in the deputy’s situation when you're trying to develop rapport with these individual groups to say, 'Get away from me, I can't talk to you,'” Gore said. “I can see how it could be interpreted that, 'Oh, they're friendly with one side.' We're trying to provide equitable, fair and unbiased policing so both sides can express their First Amendment rights.”
But University of Illinois at Chicago Law School Professor Sam Jones, who specializes in police accountability, said that kind of public display discredits the sheriff's department. He argued the deputies’ alleged inaction in keeping the extremist groups from intimidating and assaulting the BLM supporters and refusal to file timely police reports warrants strong action.
“By appearing to be biased, by appearing to ignore the rights of any American in favor of another American, they are essentially engaging in conduct unbecoming of a police officer and in my view, should be disciplined at a level commensurate with the conduct, which to me means potential removal from the force,” Jones said.
Jones added that the department’s handling of the protests and counter-protests could dissuade BLM supporters from attending rallies.
“Essentially what that person is saying is that, 'I do not feel safe exercising my rights as an American and therefore I will move myself from the democratic process,'” Jones said.
As was the case with Gabriela Sanchez-Moore.
“It creates this hopeless feeling of I want to attend these protests and I want to show my support but it's really difficult because if something were to happen to me, I don't know what help I would receive” she said.
Gore said he’s disheartened by that sentiment and vowed to do better.
“My commitment is to try to have those resources there so that doesn't happen, so they do feel safe,” Gore said. “I can't make them safe from hateful things or hurtful things that are said. I can protect them from physical danger. And if we were unable to do that in a particular situation, I'll take responsibility for that.”