Sheriff Bianco issues statement, department reports six arrests, protests resume Sunday morning
Jeff Pack and Will Fritz
On Saturday morning, crowds as large as 400 converged on the Temecula Duck Pond to protest systemic police brutality and the death of George Floyd last Monday in Minnesota.
The crowd spent most of the morning screaming chants such as “Say his name … George Floyd!” and “Black Lives Matter!” mirroring the statements made at protests and rallies all around the country in recent days.
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, there was seemingly no destructive behavior from the crowd in Temecula, aside from some periodic blocking of the intersection and jaywalking.
Just before 1 p.m., A woman and young child were injured when witnesses said a young driver lost control of his vehicle, launched onto the sidewalk, and struck at least a couple of protesters.
When the accident occurred, the protest which until then had no stationed police officers directly on the scene was then swarmed with roughly a dozen police cars.
Deputies, dressed in lightweight riot gear with helmets, exited the vehicles holding batons. At least one deputy was armed with what appeared to be a weapon used to deploy rubber bullets.
The child was reported as OK while the woman, presumably the child’s mother, was taken away in an ambulance.
The driver of the vehicle, who remained at the scene and appeared to be a young male, was handcuffed, placed in the backseat of a police cruiser and taken away from the scene as tow truck drivers tried to remove the car from behind the tree it was lodged on.
It was unclear whether the driver of the vehicle had been charged with a crime. Upon finishing their investigation, deputies then cleared out from the intersection at just before 2 p.m.
A march down the eastbound lanes of Rancho California Road toward the Interstate 15 interchange started at 1:45 p.m. The northbound offramp from I-15 and eastbound traffic on Ranch California had already been halted in both directions at that point by officers, and when the group of about 100 protesters reached the peak they stopped.
Local residents Mama Joi and Solona Husband addressed the crowd, which then returned back toward the Ynez intersection.
They returned enforce at roughly 2:30 p.m. to take up stations in the intersection at Rancho California and Ynez roads. Estimates placed the number of police vehicles on the scene at roughly 50 with more than 75 to 100 officers on hand.
By 3:15 p.m. Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputies announced to the crowd that the protest had been deemed “an unlawful gathering” and said protesters had 15 minutes to clear the area or face arrest.
Valley News reached out to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for clarification on the orders.
According to Sergeant Deanna Pecoraro of the Sheriff’s Department’s media information bureau, the orders came from the department and she did not indicate who made the determination to break up the protest.
Sgt. Pecoraro said the orders were made in the best interest and safety of everyone involved.
While a significant number of the protesters left the scene, roughly 150 protesters retreated to inside the fences of the duck pond. Meanwhile, authorities closed off the streets leading to the area and established a perimeter, including a line blocking protesters from advancing back toward the intersection.
By 4:30 p.m., it didn’t appear that deputies had made any arrests on individuals within the main grouping of protesters. Periodically, deputies would don gas masks, and deputies were seen carrying gas canisters on their person.
As of 5:30 p.m., one of the sheriff’s deputies was interacting with the crowd and answering questions, engaged in a discussion as many of the protesters sat.
Resident Betty Williams stood in front of the crowd and deputies leading the discussion — even dancing with the deputy.
By 6:30 p.m., it appeared the crowd was beginning to disperse and the situation had calmed down. There were unconfirmed reports circulating on social media about a small group of protesters moving into Old Town Temecula and later, reports of groups attempting to congregate at Promenade Temecula.
The city of Temecula reported that a group of roughly 50 protesters had congregated in front of city hall. According to the Sheriff’s Department, no incidents were reported at the mall or Old Town Temecula.
There were video reports of at least one confrontation between protesters and people driving through the intersection. Temecula City Mayor James “Stew” Stewart shared a report by an adult male involved in the confrontation, but then pulled the post down.
At 10:50 a.m. Sunday, the Sheriff’s Department reported that 6 individuals had been arrested associated with the protest on Saturday. Five were arrested for resisting arrest and crimes against the public peace and one with an additional count of a crime with intent to commit assault using force that is likely to cause great bodily injury.
When the orders to disperse were issued by the Sheriff’s Department, Valley News reached out to Temecula City Manager Aaron Adams and Mayor Stewart via email.
Adams said, “Temecula prides itself on allowing for the provision of free speech and assembly. We have a long history of doing so. We are aware of the planned vigil tomorrow evening in Old Town and have made ourselves available to work with the organizers of the vigil to assure a safe and peaceful and respectful event. We would ask for those that plan to attend this or any other organized event in the future to enjoy your freedom while respecting the laws and maintain appropriate civility.”
At 11:15 p.m. Saturday, the city released a statement from Stewart.
“To the great citizens of Temecula during this very difficult time,” Stewart said. “As Mayor, I want to express that the leaders of our city hurt alongside you. We are deeply disturbed at the inexcusable and intolerable acts of brutality that took place in Minnesota and grieve the death of Mr. George Floyd.
“I am proud to serve as mayor of a city that respects diversity, and values peaceful, constitutional assembly and free speech without violence. Today, an organized protest at the Temecula Duck Pond occurred that rose to an unlawful assembly as determined by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.”
The statement was also posted to the city’s Facebook page and was received with both praise and condemnation.
At 9 a.m. Sunday, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco issued a statement that didn’t mention the “unlawful gathering” order, the department’s warnings that arrests were to be made unless the crowd dispersed, or threats by deputies that tear gas would be deployed.
“The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department stands shoulder to shoulder with our community as we all mourn the tragic and senseless death of George Floyd,” Bianco said. “What we saw on that video does not represent the professionalism and pride we have for our profession, or the empathy, compassion, and respect we have for our communities.
“As we all watch the rioting, looting, and lawlessness shown on television and our social media pages from around the country, this photo, taken by photographer Scott Padgett, was the culmination of a peaceful rally in Temecula on Saturday.
“Throughout our history, protesting has been a part of change. Our laws, and specifically our Constitution, protect the rights of people and allow for peaceful protests in times such as these. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department will ensure protests are peaceful and meaningful while we protect those attending the rallies. We will not allow criminals, professional rioters, and instigators to victimize our communities while painting Riverside County as something we are not.”
A request for an interview with Bianco was denied Monday morning.
“The Sheriff is not able to complete an interview with you,” Sgt. Pecoraro wrote in an email. “We appreciate you reaching out to us and requesting the interview but at this time our Sheriff along with the department is fully dedicated to the safety of our community.”
Courtney Sheehan, vice president of communications for Temecula Valley Democrats, who attended the protest for four hours on Saturday, disagreed with the sheriff’s assessment of the protest and the mayor’s statement.
“I am dismayed and disturbed by the official response by the city of Temecula and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to the protests for George Floyd that took place in Temecula on Saturday,” Sheehan said. “Both are attempting to polish their public images by making the protests seem like they were an unruly group of people who were looking to cause trouble, however the situation I saw was far different; I saw a peaceful protest by our Temecula high schoolers speaking out against police brutality who were adhering to proper protest procedures but were then encircled and threatened by uniformed officers who donned gas masks and prepared to gas the protesters who wanted nothing other than to voice their concerns in a public forum.”
Temecula Valley Democrats have planned a candlelight vigil in honor of George Floyd for 7:30 p.m. Sunday in front of Temecula City Hall.
Floyd’s death was caught in a viral video showing 44-year-old Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing a knee on Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for air during an arrest.
As onlookers begged for the officer to back down, Chauvin continued pinning Floyd for over eight minutes until he became unresponsive, the video shows.
Chauvin and three other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest were fired from the Minneapolis Police Department on Tuesday. On Friday, Chauvin was arrested. He has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Protests against police brutality have sprung up across the country in response to the killing with looting and rioting taking place in major metropolitan cities.
Saturday’s protest at the Temecula Duck Pond was organized by young people in the community, according to reports from the scene.
By 10 a.m. Sunday, protesters had returned to the Temecula Duck Pond, and deputies were again present.
“Sheriff’s Deputies will be out in full force over the next several days making sure peaceful protesters are safe and allowed to gather while at the same time protecting businesses, property, and residents from violence and those promoting destruction,” Sheriff Bianco’s statement continued. “The safety of our deputies, the public, and our businesses is a priority.”
For much of Sunday morning and afternoon, deputies could be seen driving by the Temecula Duck Pond, apparently monitoring the protest, but no road closures occurred as they did on Saturday.
“Yesterday it was kind of chaotic,” Amir-Hassan Gates, who was at both protests, said. “We were doing fine, it was peaceful and an incident occurred where there was a wreck with a black woman and her child, and that’s what kind of escalated everything to going south.”
Sheriff’s deputies said the woman was struck on foot by a passing car, and the crash did not appear to be intentional, but Gates said tensions rose when police arrived and closed roads.
“So with that being said, we tried to make sure everybody was fine, make sure it stayed peaceful, don’t incite anything that shows violence, any acts of violence, aggression, nothing like that,” Gates said.
He said compared to Saturday’s protest, Sunday was a lot calmer.
“This is exactly what we were trying to accomplish the very first day,” Gates said. “Which, the first day, there was nothing wrong with — I’m not gonna say anything we did was wrong.”
Jarie Medley, who was also present for both days of protests, criticized sheriff’s deputies’ use of riot gear and gas masks.
“They were trying to prey off some of the other people’s fears” Medley said.
He described one man who he said deputies had described was being confrontational.
“They were saying he was really aggressive. He was very passionate because he was taken in the back of a police car and beaten half to death after he was supposed to be arrested,” medley said. “People like him, is where they put those gas masks on and they come out, and they try to make you act out of fear, because as soon as you come, then they get their right to do what they want.”
Reyna Stuart was present for both days of protests as well. She said she lives in Los Angeles, but has family and friends in Temecula and heard about the demonstration from them.
“I wasn’t aware of the protest that was going on (at first) but I saw it on Twitter and I have a lot of people that live out here,” Stuart said. “And I’m just sick and tired of seeing the same s**t on the news. I’m just so tired of it. It’s just hurtful to keep seeing our people die by the hands of the police, so it’s our time to try to make a change and speak up for injustice, speak up against what’s wrong. And you know, if people don’t like it, that’s on them.”
She said that drivers passing by the protest appeared to be about 50/50 for and against the protesters, which she did not expect.
“I’m actually surprised because Temecula has a really bad history, but you know, I’m happy that there are people here from different backgrounds,” Stuart said.
See more photos from Saturday’s protest by Staff Photographer Shane Gibson here:
To read more about the accident involving the woman and baby struck by the vehicle during the protest, go here:
This is a breaking news story that will be updated when more information becomes available.
Managing Editor Kim Harris, Will Fritz, and City News Service contributed to this report.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.