Dozens of demonstrators in militia clothing descended Saturday on the west side of the state Capitol, one of at least three groups protesting California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus stay-at-home order in downtown Sacramento.
A group calling itself the 2nd Regiment of the California State Militia held a silent vigil on the sidewalk, where three other big demonstrations have been held in recent weeks. More than 75 California Highway Patrol officers stood guard behind steel barricades that were set up Thursday to keep a large group from entering the Capitol grounds.
Dozens of others demonstrated as well, many of them with signs and banners supporting President Donald Trump as they ignored social distancing guidelines. They said Newsom’s shutdown of the economy, and the CHP’s ban on protests on the Capitol grounds, were unconstitutional.
A third group formed a prayer group across the street from the Capitol. Adding to the carnival atmosphere, high school seniors and their parents wandered the area, taking graduation and prom photos in front of the stately building in downtown Sacramento.
“I’m here just to make a presence,” said one of the protesters, John Boker of Dixon, who arrived with an American flag. “If I don’t, we’ll lose our freedoms.”
One of the militiamen, Steve Coburn of Citrus Heights, said his group would peacefully protest and “not cause any problems.”
“We’re just expressing our First Amendment right to peacefully assemble,” Coburn said. “We’re not here to intimidate.”
While armed demonstrators protested COVID-19 shutdowns at Michigan’s Capitol recently, Coburn said his group wasn’t carrying weapons.
“We’re not here to strike fear,” Coburn said. “We’re not here for confrontation.”
More than 60 members of the so-called militia had lined up quietly for more than three hours along the 10th Street sidewalk facing the west steps. CHP officers stood on the steps. Patrolling the perimeter were more than 100 other officers in masks and helmets, and officers on horseback.
Sacramento police arrived and blocked off 10th Street, but not before a gelato truck was able to get through and set up shop. The street runs along the west side of the building.
The protests come a day after a federal judge rejected a request that he scuttle the CHP’s temporary ban on protests at the Capitol, saying the state’s emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic give it the authority to order a halt to such gatherings.
A demonstration on the grounds Thursday was thwarted when protesters arriving to find the CHP had ringed the west side of the Capitol property with steel gates and posted hundreds of officers around the perimeter to ensure they could not advance beyond the 10th Street sidewalk. The protesters stuck to the sidewalk and the rally proceeded without incident or arrest.
As the militia members gathered Saturday, a masked bicyclist rode by taking video of the group and shouting “a bunch of terrorists” at them. The spokes in his rear wheel were festooned with Bernie Sanders stickers.
“Patriots” one replied. The group then recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Separately, a prayer group gathered at the circle that terminates the Capitol Mall, a block away from the west steps.
The arrival of the protesters at the Capitol in Sacramento made for humorous contrasts. A group of graduating seniors from Inderkum High School in Natomas posed for photos in front of the militia members.
But the demonstration also disrupted plans for a group from Vista Del Lago High School in Folsom to take prom photos on the Capitol steps. The group was stopped by the CHP officers.
“They wouldn’t let us through,” said Elizabeth Schulte, who brought the girls from Vista Del Lago to take photos commemorating “the prom that never happened.” She said the CHP’s ban on protests is a violation of free speech.
Shortly after 2 p.m., the militia group departed from the Capitol, along with several others, leaving a contingent of fewer than 25 protesters, who insulted the CHP officers by calling them “Gestapo” and “SS,” references to the secret police of Nazi Germany.
Federal judge ruled on permit ban
The CHP instituted a temporary ban on permits at the Capitol after an April 20 protest — which was granted a permit — drew hundreds of people who jammed together without protective masks or gloves. On May 1, despite a lack of a permit, protesters came anyway. That protest culminated with a line of CHP officers in riot gear forcing hundreds of demonstrators to back off the Capitol grounds and onto a city sidewalk after a tense standoff. Thirty-two people were detained and cited for creating a public health hazard.
U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez issued the 24-page order Friday following two hours of argument a day earlier in federal court in Sacramento during which two capital residents — a Sacramento gun club employee and a Republican congressional candidate — were seeking a temporary restraining order against the CHP’s protest ban.
Mendez cited a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.”
“The Supreme Court penned those words over a hundred years ago, but they remain relevant today,” Mendez wrote, noting the danger the state’s citizens face from the spread of COVID-19.
Citing other court rulings, Mendez noted that First Amendment rights are critical and that the state Capitol grounds are a popular spot for citizens to make their opinions known.
But he found the CHP is not trying to stop certain protests; instead, the agency is trying to stop all protests to avoid the spread of the virus, a move that he found is within the state’s emergency powers.
“The Court is well aware that the State’s stay at home order being challenged by these Plaintiffs is burdensome, and even devastating, to many,” he wrote. Mendez conceded that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit may continue for some time, and has the potential to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This pandemic has undoubtedly taken its toll. But the sacrifices all California residents are being asked to make to protect the state’s most vulnerable flow from a constitutional executive order. And our willingness to rise to the challenge posed by that order is a true measure of our humanity.”
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