Who's liable for violence at a protest? Enamorado case highlights a 1st Amendment issue

SANTA BARBARA, CA-NOVEMBER 30, 2023:Activist Edin Alex Enamorado, protests outside of Santa Barbara Superior Court during the arraignment for Jeanne Umana, a woman caught on two separate videos, using racist language to Latino men. Enamorado wants her to be charged with a hate crime. Her arraignment was continued until January 3, 2024. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Activist Edin Alex Enamorado protests outside of Santa Barbara Superior Court in November during the arraignment for Jeanne Umana, a woman caught on two separate videos, using racist language to Latino men. Enamorado wants her to be charged with a hate crime. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

More than a month after their arrests, a group of Southern California advocates for street vendors are still being held without bail while awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy, assault and other violent felonies.

The activists' defense attorneys argue they’re being singled out by police because they've been vocal critics of law enforcement. The case illustrates what can happen when zealous protesters take to the streets and their passionate advocacy results in violence.

Among the group is 36-year-old Edin Alex Enamorado, who over the last few years has staged protests outside the homes and workplaces of people he believes deserve public shaming, either because they were recorded saying something racist or because they were accused of attacking a street vendor.

Enamorado's brand of activism starts with him highlighting an issue over Instagram or TikTok, then taking to the streets with a bullhorn to escalate his campaign.

Read more: He defends street vendors. Now he's on trial. Did he fly too close to the sun?

Prosecutors say the members of the group, referred to as the "Justice 8" by their supporters, are too great a threat to the community to be released on bail. They were arrested Dec. 14 after a multi-agency police investigation, and all but one have remained in jail since then.

Defense attorneys argue that the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office branded the defendants co-conspirators simply for exercising their 1st Amendment rights and organizing their efforts over social media or text messages.

The conspiracy charge is “whatever the prosecution wants it to be,” defense attorney Dan Chambers said in court. He admonished the prosecution for treating the activists as a “roving mob."

The six people arrested alongside Enamorado and his partner, Wendy Lujan, 40, were David Chavez, 28; Stephanie Amesquita, 33; Gullit Eder Acevedo, 30; Edwin Pena, 26; Fernando Lopez, 44; and Vanessa Carrasco, 40.

The group is accused of intimidating and attacking people in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties in three separate incidents in September. In each case, authorities allege, the activists were staging a protest when the targets of or bystanders to the action were threatened or beaten.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Emerson Sykes is unfamiliar with the specifics of the case against the Justice 8, but he said that arrests after a protest are nothing new and typically serve their own purpose.

“Civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition whereby people knowingly and willfully violate laws, whether they believe they’re unjust or to highlight other injustices, and willfully suffer the consequences of violating the law to make their legal point, their moral point and their ethical point,” Sykes said.

But sometimes protests lead to arrests for unlawful actions that followed in their wake. And who can be held liable for those unlawful acts is a difficult question to untangle, Sykes said.

Arter the 2020 murder of George Floyd in 2020, for example, there was a massive uptick in protests across the country against police violence that then resulted in an aggressive crackdown by law enforcement, Sykes said. Conspiracy, rioting and other charges were filed against protesters even though they might not have been involved with the violence or property destruction that happened afterward.

In another example, a Louisiana court ruled that a Baton Rouge police officer hit by a rock during a 2016 Black Lives Matter protest march could sue its leader, DeRay Mckesson, a prominent civil rights activist. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling, finding that the officer’s lawsuit does not violate the 1st Amendment and Mckesson could be liable for damages; the ACLU has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

“We think this is a horrible line of argumentation that would have a devastating and chilling effect on protesters,” Sykes said.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley Law School, is not familiar with the evidence against Enamorado, but he says there is no 1st Amendment protection "for engaging in assault."

"That isn't a 1st Amendment issue," said Chemerinsky, who joined in a legal brief to overturn the lower court's ruling in the Mckesson case.

Advocating for the use of force or violence does not remove someone's right to free speech, but there has to be some proven specific intent, Chemerinsky added.

Like Mckesson, Enamorado would often issue calls to his hundreds of thousands of social media followers to join protests, reaching people who might not otherwise hear about violence against street vendors or excessive uses of force by police.

“Social media provides an additional form of civic engagement," said Chris Zepeda-Millán, chair of labor studies at UCLA. "Some people might not be comfortable in crowds, but we have to ask ourselves, does that mean they shouldn't participate at all in public dialogue and politics?”

Enamorado’s brand of activism manages to bridge the gap between people who only engage with activism through social media and those who want to physically be on the streets, said Zepeda-Millán, but it's unclear if one leads to the other.

Hundreds of supporters crammed into the Victorville courthouse, roughly 75 miles east of Los Angeles, in late December to hear the case against the eight activists. Many wore T-shirts that read “Free the Justice 8” and “Stand Up Fight Back.”

“I admire Alex because he’s the type of guy who fundraises for the people who don’t always have a voice. He’s able to give them hope,” said Alfonso Grijalva, who drove several hours from Stockton and slept on a couch the night before to attend one of the hearings. Many of Enamorado's supporters refer to him by his middle name.

After several hours of argument by defense attorneys and the prosecution, seven of the eight activists were denied bail.

“That’s not the Alex I know,” Grijalva said, unmoved by the prosecution’s framing of Enamorado as a threat. “So much about helping people is showing up. That’s what Alex is about.”

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Melissa Rodriguez granted bail to Acevedo, who was present at a protest in Victorville and charged with assault. That charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor.

She ordered him to not contact any of the co-defendants in the case while out on bail and barred him from using social media.

Nicholas Rosenberg, Enamorado’s attorney, said his client would agree to similar stipulations if the court allowed him to post bail and await trial under house arrest.

“We have activists sitting in jail with no bail,” Rosenberg said. “It’s common for a court to issue house arrest, but not a social media block.”

Authorities say the charges against the eight stem from three incidents that involved much more than activism:

  • After sharing a video of a security guard attacking a group of street vendors, Enamorado and other activists confronted the guard on Sept. 3 as he sat in his car and then again when he approached the group as they protested outside a Pomona supermarket where he worked. Prosecutors allege that the guard was later beaten inside the market and pepper sprayed by some of those same activists.

  • On Sept. 24, Enamorado and other protesters blocked the entrance to a San Bernardino County Sheriff's station in Victorville, prosecutors allege, and at least one off-duty sheriff’s deputy felt threatened when the group approached his civilian vehicle. The group's rally focused on a deputy accused of body-slamming a 16-year-old girl at a high school football game.

  • Another two men who were simply in close proximity to the protesters were also attacked, prosecutors allege. One was at a Pomona police station on Sept. 3, and the other confronted protesters as they walked in front of his wife’s car near a car wash in Victorville on Sept. 24.

  • In 2017, Enamorado was identified by Los Angeles law enforcement as the subject in a sexual assault investigation, according to a redacted document provided to The Times under a California Public Records Act request. But the victim declined to cooperate or press charges, so the matter was dropped.

Years before the court hearing, Enamorado knocked on doors to register voters in predominantly Latino neighborhoods across Los Angeles and Orange counties.

In 2016, Enamorado registered voters for the Latino Voters League under the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Coachella City Councilman Neftalia Galarza, Enamorado’s former supervisor on the voter registration project, recalls that canvassers were paid hourly and not by the signature. But Enamorado always returned with stacks of newly registered voters.

“Anyone who has done this type of canvassing work knows it’s not easy. You’re going up to a stranger’s home and asking for personal information,” Galarza said.

Over the years, he watched Enamorado’s brand of civic engagement grow into activism. Galarza believes that Enamorado is being made an example of by law enforcement who want to hold him accountable for his years as an activist.

“It should be concerning for all of us over what’s happening to Alex,” Galarza said.

Enamorado and the other activists appeared in court Friday for another bail hearing. A judge took their argument for bail under submission.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.