By Joe Payne
The Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD) stationed two “long observers” with scoped rifles on the roof of the Santa Maria Town Center to surveil an April 24 protest against police violence in the city’s downtown area.
The officers are usually part of the city’s SWAT team, SMPD Sgt. Woody Vega said, and are referred to as “long observers” and “long rifle” officers by the department, though that title has changed over the years.
“They used to be called snipers; for tactical operations they are used often,” Vega said. “For this incident, a possible potential rally or civil unrest, this was the first time we’ve put them out there to observe.”
The event was organized by Central Coast leftist group SBSLO Alliance, which posted fliers to social media days before the event, which read “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! RALLY AGAINST POLICE AND RIGHTWING VIOLENCE.” The event was a response to the police killing of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Ohio, according to SBSLO Alliance member Jose, who did not share a last name out of concern for his safety.
Not long after the initial post, members of SBSLO Alliance became aware that conservatives were sharing the flier in local rightwing Facebook groups “Protect Santa Maria” and “Protect Paso Robles.” The comments sections on the posts included pejoratives and insults, but also veiled threats.
“Watch out for snipers,” one comment said.
When members of SBSLO Alliance began their demonstration on April 24, they were soon met by rightwing counter protestors. According to Jose and video of the event, protestors with SBSLO Alliance never reached more than eight people. The counter protestors, however, had up to 20 people there waving flags, blocking signs, and chanting their own slogans, Jose said.
It was also obvious to SBSLO Alliance members right away that there was an armed presence on the roof of the Santa Maria Town Center mall. Though activists weren’t sure at the time that the men were SMPD officers, they displayed their scoped rifles clearly from the rooftops. Jose explained that the members of SBSLO Alliance don’t fear the police department generally, but the event shook them up.
“At the moment we were scared, even if it was the police, we were scared for our lives,” Jose said. “When you have the snipers pointed at you, … and we have seen what happens across the country, these police officers are trigger happy. They just want a reason to shoot.”
According to Sgt. Vega with the SMPD, the officers did “set up the rifles” during their “initial deployment,” but the guns were “moved back, out of the way,” and officers continued to observe with binoculars. He said that the officers were there to conduct surveillance and report back to a “command post.”
Vega also said that the department was concerned about possible conflict between SBSLO Alliance members and counter demonstrators.
“We were thinking a confrontation,” Vega said. “We were hoping that everything would be peaceful, which it was, but that was a cause for concern.”
Almost a year ago, the same intersection was the sight of a Black Lives Matter protest and unrest on May 31, 2020, six days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hundreds of BLM activists marched through the streets of Santa Maria early in the afternoon. The majority left soon after, but a small crowd stood in the intersection of Cook and Broadway with signs.
That evening, around 9 to 10 p.m., people performed burnouts with cars and motorcycles in the intersection while others set off fireworks and lit a small bonfire. As the SMPD moved in to clear out the crowd, a handful of people broke into the Santa Maria Town Center, smashed windows, and looted a store before police cleared the mall.
The SMPD was anticipating something similar on April 24, Sgt. Vega explained, saying the entire last year was “a real learning experience with our department.” The agency was also expecting a reaction to the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, which ultimately saw the former officer found guilty of all charges in the murder of Floyd.
“A lot of agencies like ours have been preparing for what could happen after the verdict,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of training. Smaller agencies like ours don’t have a lot of training or preparation for things like this. Our agency has been preparing for civil unrest situations, if not for here in Santa Maria, but if we’re asked to go aid in other areas.”
For members of SBSLO Alliance, which didn’t take its current form until July last year, the response from the SMPD for the April 24 protest proves their point—that police violence stems from systemically racist and overfunded policing agencies.
“We think our local police department made a fool of themselves,” Jose said. “They’re obviously overfunded, and they have nothing better to do with all the resources they have. We were protesting against police brutality, and they were up there aiming at us with sniper rifles, or whatever they want to call it.”
“We have a history of local law enforcement agencies claiming that, ‘Whatever happens in other cities with their police departments… but that’s not here, that’s not happening here,'” he added. “But I think what we saw Saturday proves our point—that’s police brutality right there. They were obviously militarized.”
Since the mass action during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, the numbers of protestors on the streets of the United States has dwindled, only surging in localized areas when a citizen is shot by police. The disproportionate response on April 24 by the SMPD, especially considering the agencies reaction on May 31 last year (for which this writer credited the department), begs the question—are law enforcement agencies listening to the message of protestors, or do they see them only as sources of possible unrest or crime?
The SMPD’s Sgt. Vega said that the department focuses a lot of training on proper use of force when arresting people, including “how to use minimal force,” which has “always been our philosophy in Santa Maria.” While Vega thought the green-fatigue-clad officers on the roof of the mall may have appeared “kind of strange” to activists, he said that the police presence was for the safety of everyone involved.
“We want to give people their right to assemble… we want to give them room and plenty of opportunity to voice their opinions,” Vega said. “We didn’t want to effect that in any way, but if things do get out of hand we have things in place to protect the community and the participants.”
But activists like Jose don’t see it that way.
Some local law enforcement officers are members of the conservative “Protect” groups on Facebook, he said, and many hold rightwing views. He also mentioned cases of police departments coordinating with or showing preferential treatment to rightwing extremist groups like the Proud Boys. Earlier this month, a Fresno Police officer was fired after it was discovered he was a member of the Proud Boys. That’s part of why the protest was organized against both police violence and rightwing extremist violence—they are both sides of the same coin, he said.
Jose also said that the online threats from rightwing counter demonstrators may have suppressed the turnout of activists sympathetic to his and SBSLO Alliance’s cause.
“Santa Maria is a very small town and is still very conservative, even nowadays,” he said. “The flier got a lot of traction, not just from the right, but people were concerned because of the comments that were being made online. They were really concerned for their safety.”
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