It was the largest protest rally in Sacramento so far over COVID-19 shutdowns — with haircuts on the side.
At least 2,000 demonstrators came to the Capitol on Saturday to march around the grounds, feast on barbecue and demand that Gov. Gavin Newsom lift his restrictions on business, religious gatherings and other trappings of everyday life.
The demonstration, dubbed Liberty Fest, was a cross between a tailgate party, music festival and political statement. Organizers said it would be country’s largest Memorial Day weekend protest against coronavirus stay-at-home orders.
A massive throng gathered along 10th Street, facing the west steps of the Capitol, with hundreds arriving hours before the official noon start. Two busloads came from Southern California, organized by anti-vaccination protesters.
While the crowd was peaceful, at least three demonstrators briefly hopped the temporary fence installed weeks ago along the sidewalk on 10th Street to keep protesters away from the west steps.
One man tried to give California Highway Patrol officers a copy of a ten-page treatise on the constitutional duties of law enforcement and allegations involving former Bay Area gang leader Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who was sentenced to life in prison for murder in a wide-ranging racketeering case that also snared former state Sen. Leland Yee in 2014. The officers refused to accept the document and let the man to return to the sidewalk. Then two other men hopped the fence as well but immediately slipped back into the crowd.
Some in the crowd wore T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Resist. Rise. Revolt. Reopen.” Social distancing was non-existent as the sidewalk and closed-off 10th Street were clogged with humanity. Masks were rare, aside from reporters and the more than 100 California Highway Patrol officers on hand, and demonstrators said journalists who wore them were spreading fear. A few people were treated for dehydration as temperatures crept into the 80s.
Rock and country music played over a loudspeaker as some of the protesters marched slowly around the perimeter of the building. A flatbed truck, set up for speeches and live music, bore the sign, “Jesus, heal this land,” and signs vowing to recall Newsom were plentiful. An airplane circled overhead, towing a banner that said “End his tyranny” and depicted Newsom as Hitler.
“We pray for Gavin Newsom, as hard as that is for us to do, because he is so wicked,” Pastor Tim Thompson, a Southern California clergyman and a familiar sight at Capitol coronavirus protests, told the crowd as the rally began.
A card table offered American flags and Donald Trump merchandise for sale, while another vendor was selling shirts with the slogan, “1776. Forever Free.” Dozens of port-a-potties lined the sidewalk, and several area restaurants set up food trucks in the vicinity.
Haircuts, manicures and other services performed in close quarters remain prohibited for the time being under Newsom’s phased-in approach to resuming economic activities. At least one protester decided she would provide haircuts anyway.
La Donna Christensen, 39, a Roseville cosmetologist and hair stylist, set up six temporary stations on the sidewalk by the west side of the Capitol. Despite warnings of a license suspension from the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, she was out to show that haircuts aren’t hazardous..
“We’re going to do haircuts for donations, basically try to show that being in the cosmetology industry … is one of the most sanitary industries in the state,” she said. “Why do they close down the salons but we can go to Home Depot, Walmart, Target? It’s ridiculous.”
Jennifer Joseph, who drove up Friday night from Orange County, had her 9-year-old son, Jordan, get one of Christensen’s first haircuts.
“It’s time to open up the state,” Joseph said, adding that Jordan had been happy to let his hair grow out. “This isn’t the country I grew up in.” Joseph’s mother said that because she was donating the money to Christensen, instead of actually paying her a fee for her grandson’s haircut, she believed that wouldn’t jeopardize the Roseville woman’s license.
More than 100 CHP officers strolled through the Capitol grounds. Unlike previous rallies, when they were jeered by some protesters, they didn’t don helmets or line up along the fence line guarding the west side of the Capitol. They closed 10th Street to vehicle traffic as a portion of the crowd spilled onto the street and the parking circle that marks the eastern edge of Capitol Mall.
Newsom has opened up much of the California economy in the past two weeks, including restaurants and shopping malls. But demonstrators demanded that Newsom go further to revive an economy that has seen unemployment quadruple since his shutdown order took effect in mid-March.
“We’ve got to reopen everything now,” said Thinh Nguyen, 38, a manicurist whose North Highlands nail salon has been closed. His father, Vuong Tat Nguyen, who served in the South Vietnamese army, led a sizable group of pro-Trump demonstrators chanting, “Four more years.”
Wearing a scarf that merged the American flag with the flag of his homeland of South Vietnam, Thinh Nguyen said Newsom is overstating the COVID-19 risks. He added that he isn’t convinced Newsom will allow him and other manicurists to reopen anytime soon.
“Whatever he says is all lies, this governor,” he said.
Many in the crowd shared Nguyen’s belief that the risks of the coronavirus have been exaggerated. “It’s a lot of hype,” said James Reed, a medical marijuana grower from Siskiyou County.
His pot farm hasn’t been shuttered by Newsom’s order, but he said, “It’s not my livelihood that I’m worried about.”
Many of Newsom’s critics are demanding the right to go to church. Thompson, the pastor of 412 Church in Riverside County, said in an interview he appreciated President Trump’s announcement Friday that he would order governors around the country to allow religious institutions to reopen. But Thompson added that Trump’s comments really aren’t necessary.
“It’s not up to the government to tell the churches what to do,” said Thompson. He added that his 412 Church in Murrieta has “been open full for the past month.”
Pressure is growing on Newsom to allow churches to reopen. The U.S Justice Department recently warned him that prohibiting religious services is unconstitutional — even though federal judges have turned aside legal challenges brought by California churches against Newsom’s order. Meanwhile, a large group of California clergy has vowed to reopen their churches for services May 31.
For his part, Newsom said Friday he would issue new guidelines on religious services within days. A large group of California clergy has vowed to hold in-person church services May 31.
Judge rules against Lodi gym owner
Meanwhile, Newsom won a legal victory late Friday when a federal judge in Sacramento refused to allow a health club owner to reopen.
U.S. District Judge John Mendez refused to grant Sean Covell, owner of three Fitness System clubs in Sacramento, Lodi and West Sacramento, a temporary restraining order that would have overturned Newsom’s restrictions. Covell said Newsom’s order violated the First Amendment, but the judge said gyms have nothing to do with freedom of speech. On Saturday, Covell appealed to his gym members to donate to a GoFundMe account to keep his staff on the payroll.
Saturday’s rally was organized by various “Reopen California” organizations demanding the Newsom end California’s restrictions, as well as the CHP’s temporary ban on state property. Previous rallies at the Capitol have drawn hundreds and one resulted in multiple arrests.
One group arriving at the Capitol Saturday, an anti-vaccination organization called the Freedom Angels Foundation, said it chartered buses from Southern California — sold out at $30 per adult and $50 per family, according to the Angels’ website. The anti-vaccination activists planted oversized needles in the ground festooned with slogans like, “This is witchcraft.” Another sign claimed that a coronavirus vaccine would be used as a “weapon of mandated depopulation.”
Demonstrations have erupted nationwide over stay-at-home orders, and have included business owners concerned about their livelihoods, parents worried about their children being locked out of school or church and people angry that their right to protest has been curtailed.
The Reopen California Facebook page has 170,000 members. Its members have varied interests; some are fighting California’s vaccination laws while others are mostly focused on Newsom’s executive order.
California’s protests have been tense at times — 32 people were arrested at the Capitol on May 1 after hundreds refused CHP orders to disperse. Subsequent demonstrations have been a lot calmer as protesters stuck to the sidewalk while CHP officers guarded the western perimeter of the Capitol grounds.
A website advertising Saturday’s demonstration said: “This is a non-violent rally. No violence will be tolerated and anyone displaying violence and/or destructive behavior is not associated with the rally and disavowed by the other participants.”
The CHP banned protests at the Capitol after a huge throng demonstrating on the grounds in late April ignored social distancing guidelines. Conservative groups have challenged the ban in court but so far have been unsuccessful.
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