'Freedom' protest against coronavirus orders leads to arrests at California Capitol


They came with babies strapped to their chests, flags waving and even a speedboat parked at the curb to symbolize California's closed beaches.

Hundreds of people — likely more than 1,000 — crowded around the California State Capitol on Friday to protest Gov. Gavin Newsom's social distancing orders amid a pandemic that has now killed more than 2,000 Californians.

With nary a mask in sight, protesters called Newsom a tyrant and showed their support for President Trump, evidenced by Trump 2020 gear everywhere, including for sale. But despite the president's back-and-forth support of social distancing, most were quick to absolve him of their anger over current conditions in the Golden State.

Susan Dorrity, a retired mortgage broker from Modesto, said the president was smart to leave decisions about closures to governors.

“Not opening up as of May 1 is on the governor, not on him,” she said. “God is behind Trump.”

The demonstration was unauthorized and not permitted by the California Highway Patrol, but CHP officers did not disperse protesters until late in the afternoon when tense moments led to a handful of arrests.

A woman who identified herself only as Michelle expressed outrage as multiple California Highway Patrol officers secured her wrists with plastic ties.

"We were peacefully assembling and I am getting arrested," she fumed as her 14-year-old daughter stood by, separated from other family members. The young girl fled past the line of officers in tactical gear with batons out, into a press of protesters, searching for her sister.

Other protests took place elsewhere in California on Friday, along with actions by grocery clerks, warehouse employees and other frontline workers who say employers are not protecting them from the contagion.

The Capitol rally kicked off just as Newsom was giving his daily briefing a few blocks away. Asked about the protest at the still-closed building, Newsom said he supports the right to civic action and promised announcements about changes to closure orders in coming days.

"I believe in freedom of expression," he said. "And thank them for their expression of free speech.”

About the time Newsom was speaking, Susan West stood waving a flag out the open sunroof of a gold Lexus SUV stuck in gridlock in front of the Capitol. Along with those on foot, hundreds more circled in the building in cars, license plates covered in duct tape, blaring their horns and ringing cowbells. Amid the clanging and beeps, she shouted a message for Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“We are healthy and we need to open up,” she yelled.

Overhead, a plane circled trailing a banner with Newsom’s photo and a slogan that read: “End his Tyranny.”

Leigh Dundas, a Southern Californian lawyer involved in previous protests, stood in a tan speedboat parked on the street, railing against Orange County beach closures on a sound system, while protesters on the steps chanted “freedom.”

Boat protesters
Protesters brought a boat to the California State Capitol on Friday to protest coronavirus beach shutdowns. (Anita Chabria / Los Angeles Times)

“The cops are pushing back the protesters off the steps of our house,” she yelled as highway patrol officers began moving protesters away from Capitol steps around 1:30 p.m.

“Freedom!” She yelled, and the crowd joined in the chant.

“What’s going on at this point is unconstitutional ... and I’m not OK with it,” she said later.

As of Friday, the COVID-19 pandemic had sickened more than 50,000 people and killed more than 2,050 in California. Nationwide, it has killed more than 65,000.

Among the political activists were some small-business owners new to political dissent and facing crushing financial losses.

Mike Owen runs Crystal Basin Cellars, a winery in El Dorado County. Owen said he was lucky because alcohol sales were considered an essential service.

“We’ve had to pivot and we are doing tons of delivery and shipping,” own said.

Still, he’s gone from 20 employees to about four, and is frustrated that those he laid off have been unable to get unemployment benefits so far. “This is the point where thankfully people have some reserves, family, he said.

But he believes the shutdown is more about politics than public safety. “We are all participating right now in Gavin Newsom’s run for president,” he said. “The conflict is going to raise his profile.”

Jim, another small business owner who asked that his last name not be used, runs a bounce house company in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville. This time of year is usually busy for his 300 jumpers and 13 employees but the shutdown has wiped him out financially.

“All my schools, my graduation parties, field days, they’re gone. Just like that,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Jim said it had taken him 10 years to build the company, starting in his garage. Within weeks of the virus hitting, people began to cancel.

“I’ve never given back so many refunds,” he said. “I went insolvent.” He laid off all his workers except for one. But that employee used to make more than $1,000 a week. Now “it’s maybe $140. I mean, just scraps.”

Jim said he had never been to a rally before last week's similar event at the Capitol, and unlike many draped in patriotic colors, he wore a black polo shirt with his company logo. As he stood watching police and protesters face off, his jaw tightened with emotion.

“We shut down the country for a cold,” he said. “I’ve got to stop talking.”