Following two months of escalating protests, the September meeting of the Committee for Racial Justice was notable for the huge show of support and unity, not racist disruptions.
The event drew a large, preemptive police response but a rumored crowd of far-right, anti-Semitic and racist protesters did not materialize leaving the park almost entirely to a boisterous group of locals and some bewildered spectators.
CRJ’s July meeting drew a small group of protesters, some of whom used anti-Semitic and racist language to disrupt the meeting. In response, CRJ focused their August workshop on confronting explicit racism and a conservative media organization expanded on the original protest with several dozen protesters. Both the Santa Monica incidents occurred prior to the huge protests in Charlottesville and rumors had circulated that hundreds of individuals from the far-right would attend the September CRJ meeting.
In response to those fears, SMPD prepared for a large-scale conflict and meeting organizers retooled to handle potential conflict.
Lieutenant Saul Rodriguez said the department’s goal was to allow CRJ to hold a meeting that was safe, in an environment where all the participants felt safe but that also provided a safe space for anyone to exercise their first amendment rights to protest.
“There was a heavy police presence due primarily to several things that have occurred,” he said.
He said the department evaluated similar events that have been held in other Sothern California cities and combined that information with its own evaluation for potential violence at the Santa Monica event to determine how many officers to have on site and in reserve.
“We decided not to downplay this and have enough resources available in case a large group showed up,” he said. “We had more resources available that we didn’t have to use but we did show a heavy police presence and nothing significant occurred.”
Police established two zones in the park and while no-one was required to stay in any one location, Rodriguez said the defined lines allowed both sides to have a safe space for expression.
For much of the evening one of the zones was outright empty or occupied by a single individual wearing a red pro-Trump hat. A small group wandered the crowd with a microphone questioning attendees about racism and expressing support for conservative values for about an hour but left before the conclusion of the workshop.
CRJ supporters had their own strategies for the event. Many gathered at the park hours before the actual workshop in a show of support and the Thelma Terry building was at capacity long before the 6:30 p.m. start time. Several attendees had undergone specific training to handle any potential disruptions.
“We had during the course of last week, we had de-escalation trainings for people that wanted to come and support because we wanted people to come and not only be peaceful but have some thoughts about how to deal with folks,” said CRJ steering Committee member Joanne Berlin.
She said the mood inside the building was tremendous with a strong sense of unity.
“Everybody was aware that there were a couple of hundred people outside supporting us,” she said. “It was really very nice and the workshop presentation went very well on raising racially conscious children. It was a terrific evening for all of us that were inside.”
She said the strong community support and very visible police activity could discourage future disruptions but regardless, CRJ is going to focus on its mission of education and won’t perpetually be reacting to potential protests.
She said the October meeting will focus on ways to support the school district.
“We’re going to do what we had planned to do last winter at the beginning of the school year,” she said. “Go over a vision statement that some of our education people have worked up for the schools and kind of launch the campaign that CRJ has been planning for to support Dr. Drati’s goal of getting every school in the district to have parent groups for the various groups that feel they are not getting equity.”
For more information on CRJ, visit https://www.facebook.com/committeeforracialjustice.