A pair of dueling abortion protests last last weekend forced police officers to physically seperate the groups resulting in a small scuffle and highlighting the Santa Monica Police Department’s response to contentious gatherings.
A pair of dueling abortion protests last weekend forced police officers to physically separate the groups resulting in a small scuffle that highlights the Santa Monica Police Department’s response to contentious gatherings.
Santa Monica has become a regular stop for regional protests tied to modern politics. The Downtown area (including the Pier, Promenade and Palisades Park) has hosted pro-Trump events, Ukrainian awareness events, protests against the Chinese government and most recently, an anti-abortion rally. Some of those events, specifically those with ties to right-wing causes, draw a local counter-protest contingent that can lead to conflict between the two groups.
Abortion rights groups have often centered on the Planned Parenthood facility downtown but last weekend a relatively small anti-abortion protest calling themselves Babies Lives Matter started in Palisades Park. A small group of pro-choice counter protesters also showed up and both sides used loudspeakers to shout at each other.
“They stayed separated for the most part, arguing back and forth,” said Lieutenant Erika Aklufi. “As we were setting up a barricade, one of the counter protesters tried to jump the line and get over to the other side and agitate.”
SMPD grabbed the individual, who then fell, and moved him back to his side. While the conflict was heated with the pro-choice contingent challenging SMPD’s efforts to put up a barricade, the event was free of significant violence and while one individual was temporarily detained, it did not result in any arrests.
Lt. Aklufi said despite the intensity of the protest, the end result was within the scope of their plan due to SMPD’s ability to escalate its response to protests to include physical barriers or its mounted unit.
“These are advertised generally by putting the stuff out on social media so we know when they’re coming and can reach out to organizers and keep them contained a little bit. And we can staff up if we need to. If we know about it, we will generally have the horses here and then they can patrol the parks or beaches if they end up getting deployed.”
Prior to the pandemic, SMPD successfully managed crowds at events like the beach concerts and at past protests. However, the department’s response to the massive protest and subsequent riot in 2020 drew significant criticism. Much of the concern centered on the tactics used to control the crowd and the department’s level of preparedness.
Following that incident, the department underwent staffing changes, including the resignation of then Chief Cynthia Renaud, hiring of current Chief Ramon Batista and acquisition of new equipment. While not directly related to the retooling post-riot, the department has also expanded resources for its equestrian unit.
Aklufi said the current wave of protests started in the lead up to the last election and while the city’s protest activity has been slow recently, she said the area has become a rallying point for both sides following the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Roe V. Wade decision.
She said the protests are usually peaceful with little more than some marching, however, SMPD prepares for the worst.
“We never know what the attitude is going to be, we try and be ready for anything and scale it up or scale it down at the time,” she said.