Protest: Council has banned items like tactical jackets and poles. Courtesy photo

Four months after voting against a proposed ordinance banning certain weaponizable items at public gatherings, City Councilmembers changed their tune in light of an upcoming protest that could lead to violence between alt-right and alt-left groups.

The emergency ordinance passed six to one, with Councilmember Davis submitting the sole no vote, and prohibits 19 types of weaponizable items during community events or public assemblies. The temporary ordinance has a 180 day sunset clause, during which time Council is expected to discuss and vote on a potential permanent ordinance.

The measure passed at the behest of the Santa Monica Police Department, which is seeking to take a proactive approach to prevent conflict at an upcoming anti-vaccination protest at the Pier on Aug. 29. According to SMPD, the protest is expected to draw members of alt-right groups as well as counter protesters from antifa and anarchist groups.

Violence has been sparked at similar recent protests in Portland, Oregon and throughout California, in cities such as Berkeley, Laguna Beach, Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland.

“It’s unfortunate that we are seeing the escalation of violence between these groups at the level that we are seeing and that’s why we’re here tonight to ask council to revisit the ordinance on prohibited items,” said Captain Candice Cobarrubias.

The list of banned items includes clearly weaponizable items such as baseball bats, metal pipes, and knives as well as tactical clothing such as military vests, gas masks and even bike helmets. SMPD based this list off of similar policies enacted by the cities such as Modesto, Berkeley, and Los Angeles.

When the motion was first brought forward in April 2020, it was drafted following the events that occurred last summer, which included peaceful demonstrations by Black Lives Matter activists and the May 31 looting of Downtown. Councilmembers Davis, McCowan, McKeown and Himmelrich voted against the initial motion, saying existing laws already provide police with the ability to intervene if objects become weapons and citing concerns over enforcement.

This time Councilmembers still expressed concern about impinging on people’s First Amendment Rights, but ultimately decided to stand behind the request of the police department and pass this temporary ordinance in response to an uncertain threat.

“I think we’re faced in this case with a new circumstance. This is not like May 31. We basically have two armies converging on our city, who want to make war in front of the Pier,” said Mayor Sue Himmelrich.

Both Councilmember McCowan and Davis voiced uncertainties about how effective this policy would be at preventing violence in practice.

“LA had their ordinance in place prior to the August 14 melee and a couple of people still ended up stabbed,” said McCowan. “Does this ultimately change anything?”

Davis questioned SMPD’s ability to logistically enforce the ordinance if hundreds of people show up to a protest and also voiced fears about the policy being enforced in a discriminatory manner.

“If you have 100 people and 100 of them have bear spray, and 50 percent of them are people of color and 50 percent of them are white, history tells us that the people of color with the bear spray are much more likely to get busted,” said Davis. “I’m not saying that’s what our police department does, but that’s what history tells us.”

SMPD Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks, who is Black, responded to Councilmember Davis’s concerns by saying she believes the department will enforce the ordinance objectively and said officers are trained on anti-bias and implicit bias in policing. Seabrooks also said that while the ordinance may not allow officers to confiscate all items, it will still be a helpful tool to prevent the escalation of violence.

“We’re just looking for a bit of assistance, that gives us some extra proactive ability to engage reasonably on those issues, so that we can make a safe environment for everybody, or as reasonably safe as it can be under the circumstances,” said Seabrooks.

Several Councilmembers spoke strongly in support of the ordinance.

Councilmember Parra drew on her experience working in emergency preparedness and said that prevention measures, such as the weaponizable items bans, are an important tool in managing crises. Councilmember Negrete said the ban could help prevent crimes of opportunity from occurring while police are focusing on protests, referencing the destruction of her Downtown family business on May 31.

Councilmember McCowan suggested adding a sunset clause, so that Council and the police department could observe the effectiveness of the policy in action before creating a permanent ordinance. This was supported by Mayor Himmelrich and passed by a vote from all councilmembers except Davis, who stood by her concerns of First Amendment violations and a lack of efficacy in action.

On Aug. 26, Chief Seabrooks issued a warning to the community regarding the upcoming protest and urged residents to report anything suspicious they may see and register for the City’s alert system at Seabrooks also said she supports local businesses if they wish to board up their stores in advance, but added that activity at recent protests would not indicate this is a necessary action.

“The most recent incidents of violence associated with these types of protests has largely involved protestors and counter protestors who primarily focused on each other,” said Seabrooks. Where there have been bouts of vandalism, such as graffiti or the burning of trash cans, there have not been any reported acts of looting.”