The Sacramento County Sheriff blames “professional protesters and professional instigators” for causing trouble during a Saturday night vigil in which a deputy struck a protester with his patrol car and drove off.
Sheriff Scott Jones on Monday cited as evidence undisclosed investigative work, the fact that his deputies often see the same people protesting different causes, and that sometimes people from outside the area join in protests. The incident was the latest in a string of confrontations between Sacramento-area law enforcement and residents of California's capital city upset by what they consider to be heavy-handed policing, especially in minority communities.
“Unfortunately in many protests that have developed to this scope, there are professional protesters and professional instigators that infiltrate the protests for their own purposes, as well as participants from out of the region that inflame and antagonize the event,” Jones said at a press conference. “The results oftentimes are actions that cause undue scrutiny on the protesters’ cause, their methods, message and actions, and law enforcement. That is what happened here.”
Saturday night, a largely peaceful vigil of about 150 people devolved when some of the group surrounded and began hitting and kicking two sheriff’s cars. Both cars drove off as they were surrounded, and one of them struck a protester. The protests were part of ongoing community reaction to the March 18 killing of unarmed black man Stephon Clark by Sacramento police officers. The woman hit by the sheriff's car is a former school para-educator and frequent attendee at local city government meetings, the Sacramento Bee reported.
The First Amendment enshrines the right of Americans to peaceably assemble, and contains no restrictions on who is allowed to participate. Jones said his deputies want to respect that right, but will continue to intervene when property damage or bodily harm is imminent. “That right is well established, but it is not absolute,” he said.
Security consultant and protest expert Sam Rosenfeld said police often blame mysterious professional protesters when there's been a mistake. Nationally, he said there's a small group of anarchist-type agitators who relish confrontations with police, but the overwhelming majority of people who protest are deeply passionate, well-organized amateurs who are willing to drive hours to participate in events they feel strongly about.
"I think the dangerous thing here is to conflate people who are passionate about injustice in the world with the idea that there is some sort of rent-a-professional protester or a professional agitator available for hire," said Rosenfeld, co-founder of the Dallas-based Densus Group, which provides protest-management consulting and training to law enforcement. "Are there protesters who will protest any issue as an excuse to get on the front lines against police? Absolutely. However, I have seen police use that repeatedly as an excuse for a lack of preparation to deal with the threat."
Many of the recent Sacramento protests have been organized by Black Lives Matter Sacramento, which announced it was having an urgent planning meeting Monday evening at the South Sacramento Christian Church — and warned outsiders to stay away. The announcement specifically bars the media, law enforcement or politicians from attending, and added: “This is not a Black-only space but if you are non-Black and we ain’t seen you out there with us, then you won't get in.”
The group said in a separate statement: "We will continue to demand justice for not just Stephon, but for all lives that have been unjustly taken at the hands of law enforcement," it said.
The incident occurred as tensions were heightened in Sacramento after the release Friday of an independent autopsy report by Clark's family, which found that he had been shot eight times, most of the bullets hitting him in the back. Clark was 22. Multiple disruptive but peaceful rallies have been held in Sacramento since the shooting, but overall the city has stayed calm.
"This independent autopsy affirms that Stephon was not a threat to police and was slain in another senseless police killing under increasingly questionable circumstances," Benjamin Crump, a high-profile civil rights attorney hired by Clark's family, said Friday.
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