Tensions ran high as local business owners moved to protect their property

PASO ROBLES — Two days after a peaceful protest over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd occurred in Paso Robles downtown park on Sunday, a second protest was held from 11 a.m. on Tuesday with about 125 people. Since Sunday, protests-turned-riots around California created destruction and violence, and locals showed up in concern about potential violence in their city.

While testy at times, the protest was nonviolent, and emotional messages were shared by protesters, calling for responsibility from local police and change to systemic corruption.

Protesters marched and stopped throughout the afternoon, including Kristen Thompson of Paso Robles who spoke to a seated crowd in front of the Paso Robles Police Department at one point.

Thompson graduated Paso Robles High School in 2016, and recently graduated Alabama State University. She urged the crowd to focus on making a difference, like she had in her studies of criminal justice and forensic science.

Thompson also spoke to her experience as a Paso Robles resident and the messages she received as a child from her mother — messages that imbued Thompson with stark awareness that her skin color made her a target.

With a CHP helicopter circling above, the crowd passed a small bullhorn and invited people with dark skin to speak. The organizer of the peaceful protest on Sunday in downtown Paso Robles park, Portia Hill spoke to the crowd with a message to “do it right” after some messages had gotten aggressive toward the police.

“The message of my speech is that I do fear for my life and my son’s life,” Hill told Paso Robles Press. “I fear for his life every day. But I also know that not all police are bad. You have your bad ones, you have your good one.”

One of the protesters called on Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin and asked what he has done to help protect those with darker skin feel safe in Paso Robles.

Martin accepted the challenge and spoke to the crowd from the park bench that was being used as a stage. He spoke to the crowd without the otherwise necessary COVID-19 face mask.

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Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin speaking to a protest crowd in front of the Paso Robles Police Department on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Photo by Nic Mattson

“First of all, I want to say I appreciate your very orderly, very conscientious and very righteous protest today,” Martin said. “I have always held the people of Paso Robles in great regard and that is why I ran for mayor. A great majority of the people here are intelligent, compassionate and want to do the right thing. You all are a part of that.”

He continued to answer the question, noting his service in politics and focus on public safety.

“In light of what I see since the incident with Mr. Floyd, which obviously compounds the numerous incidents against black people in this area, it is time that I step up and do more than I have done in the past,” Martin said.

Martin went on to promise that he would introduce a citizen’s commission to air grievances and concerns about unfair treatment at all levels of local City administration and government.

“Step two is that we will take the results of those communications and those conversations and make changes necessary in City policy and budgets to the greatest extent possible that racism is not reflected intentionally or unintentionally in the city of Paso Robles.”

Martin issued that step three included taking the conversations had at the local city level and carry them personally to the next level of government up. 

“What I will do is take the results of our city communications and plans and I will put them in an envelope and tuck them under my arm,” Martin promised, “and I will go to the other mayors and County of San Luis Obispo and tell them we all need to be doing this. And I will go to the League of California Cities … and Sacramento and tell the governor of California that this is what we need to be doing. Every level that someone throws up their hands and says it’s not their job I’ll go one level higher until I reach the top. That is what I’ve done in the past and that is what I’ll do in the future.”

Shouts of “amen” and “we are going to hold you to that” rose from the surrounding crowd. Martin continued.

“Here’s what I’m counting on you to do,” Martin said, “in the same numbers here and in greater numbers, support passing the plan. Make sure not to let the words ‘we are in this together’ ring hollow because we are in this together and if we work on this together as neighbors, then we can make a change.”

Following Martin, a couple of women testified, with one speaking about her daughter and growing up in Paso Robles with dark skin.

“It is sad I have to tell her that not all police will protect her because of the color of her skin,” she said. “Thank God for social media because I didn’t know this was still going on. It is sad that I’m judged by how dark I am or the color of my skin, and I got to tell [my daughter] that not all police are good. But not all police are bad. It is really sad. We are tired of dying.”

Among the messages that were spoken at the first stop were hope and compassion, calls to “defund the police,” and one protester’s drunken experience with Pismo Beach police that he said nearly cost himself eight years in prison.

Hill spoke with Paso Robles Press after the protesters continued their march.

“I feel like it is a lot of young people who want to fight for us, but want to fight for us in the wrong way,” Hill said. “We want our voices to be heard, 1,000 percent, but we want it to be heard in the right way. We don’t want it to be heard in a negative way because I feel like it is turned around on us black people, rioting because of us getting killed. I just want them to do this peacefully.”

Another protester called on PRPD Chief Ty Lewis to answer for what the PRPD is doing in the wake of the death of George Floyd, but when Lewis entered the crowd to answer he was shouted down by the man who called for the defunding of police and a small portion of the crowd did not allow him to answer.

The protesters were later directed to rise and walk, and began a march that took them down Park Street to 11th, around the downtown park, north to 13th Street and back to Spring Street. The crowd marched through moving vehicles, impeding vehicle traffic, and causing congestion, but otherwise was non-confrontational during the walk.

Chants included “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” and chants of the name George Floyd and Breanna Taylor.

Police assistance from Atascadero and San Luis Obispo departments were made available, as were 30 SLO County Sheriff deputies — present in the wings in full riot gear. Reports that national guard troops were dropped at the Paso Robles Airport during the afternoon in response to the protest were confirmed by PRPD to be false.

Tensions and anxiety among local business owners were high as they looked to protect their investments against potential vandalism and looting. The owner of Buona Tavola, Antonio Varia, boarded up his storefront on Spring Street and Chris Takken of Takken’s Shoes spent the afternoon protecting his property onsite at Spring and 8th streets.

Reports that outside agitators were imported to incite protester violence were shared on social media groups.

Lewis joined a group called “Protect Paso” and emphatically urged members of the group to leave the policing to the professionals. Members of motorcycle clubs the Molocs and the Vagos arrived anyhow, and received commendation from members of the group for their presence.

Despite the concerns, the protest remained nonviolent as protesters made rounds through the streets of Paso Robles. The protesters sat and blocked traffic in multiple locations during the remainder of the protest. The protest was not permitted and streets being marched were not blocked off — police presence mobilized during the traffic blockages to maintain safety between the protesters and moving traffic.

The crowd of about 125 sat on 6th Street at Park Street in front of the Paso Robles post office, then moved again to rest in the intersection of Pine and 12th streets.

Protesters sitting on 6th Street in front of the US Post Office. Photo by Nic Mattson

Police presence gathered during the stops, maintaining order while non-protester gathered around. At least one non-protester who began a verbal altercation during a stop was forcibly removed by local police.

During the stop at Pine and 12th streets, the temperature rose above 90 degrees and tempers rose as well. While the protesters sat, sharing stories about police intimidation in their lives over the bullhorn, a new protester began pacing around the perimeter shouting “f*ck the police” and agitating bystanders.

Local resident Dale Gustin approached the protest and addressed the man, asking where he was from. The man answered, “Earth.” A verbal altercation ensued between the elderly Gustin and the young agitator, after which the agitator grabbed the bullhorn and made some claims against the local police and ended his speech with “f*ck the police” before leaving the protest to grab some food from Odyssey World Cafe.

The man was later seen in the passenger seat of a vehicle driving around the park yelling “f*ck you” to bystanders, while the protesters resumed marching south on Spring Street.

The tone of the protest grew sharper and more interactions between protesters and police occurred, and at around 5 p.m. reports that increased aggression caused local law enforcement to call for the end of the protest.

The City of Paso Robles reported that “The City of Paso Robles fully embraces the rights of protesters to peaceably assemble and is grateful for the outcome of today’s events,” in a press release.

“I want everybody to protest but to protest in a peaceful way,” Hill said. “Rioting, getting the police involved and all that stuff … that is not the way to go. My word if I had one is ‘peace.’”

Getting through this together, Paso Robles