San Diego, CA – On the morning of Jan. 9, 2021 in Pacific Beach, San Diego, California, a group of Stop the Steal ralliers gathered on the sunny California boardwalk.
Hours later, after counter protesters had been dispersed, a voice would chime in over a police radio, “The protest has been hijacked by Proud Boys and they are no longer cooperating with the police.”
Mixed in the Trump crowd that day were members of the American Guard, Proud Boys, Peckerwoods and other extremist groups. Many wore body armor and had knives strapped to their waists. Others carried QAnon and Gadsden flags emblazoned with the phrase “don’t tread on me”.
Three days earlier, several of them were part of the group that breached police barricades in the U.S. Capitol in an effort to thwart President Joe Biden’s election. One such individual, Joe Vargas, who goes by the nickname ‘MAGA Pit,’ helped organize this January 9th Stop the Steal rally.
Another organizer, Damien Russel, is the founder of the fascist American Coalition Party — a group that makes flattering statements about Hitler on their Telegram.
Mixed in the crowd was Mercedes Diaz and another unidentified man who had been part of a racist attack three days earlier in downtown Los Angeles. Trump supporters had surrounded Berlina Nibo, macing her and ripping off her weave. Diaz screamed, “Fuck BLM. I’ll snatch your fucking weave off!” His assault was followed by another Trump supporter, Cassandra Ferragamo, screaming, “I did that. I did that. I did the first scalping of the new civil war”. `
Close to the far-right group on the pier, gathered to counter them, was a group composed of various leftist and/or liberal protesters, including militant antifascists and less radical Biden supporters. Tensions were high between the pro- and anti-Trump camps, and a violent protest erupted that ended in multiple injuries and property damage.
Yet, despite ample evidence that both groups engaged in confrontations, the only people being charged with felonies for their actions that day are the counter-protestors that San Diego’s right-wing District Attorney Summer Stephen has deemed to be members of “antifa.” Stephen views “antifa” — broadly accepted to be a political movement with no formal structure or leadership — as a criminal gang — an unprecedented move that could double the length of any sentences.
San Diego Police Department (SDPD) Captain Matt Novak, who was part of SDPD Command that day, has thus far backed up Stephen’s claims. He went so far as to state in his Grand Jury testimony that the “patriot side” was “very cooperative.”
The district attorney’s case, however, is not the only legal battle winding its way through the courts in regards to the day’s events. Hours of police body cam footage from the protest and rally have now been released through discovery in a case brought against the city by civil rights attorney Bryan Pease. His lawsuit contends that the SDPD was negligent in its duties when they failed to disperse a pro-Trump crowd after calling an unlawful assembly, allowing them to run unchecked through the beach community for several hours, harassing counter-protesters, restaurant patrons and beach goers.
Body camera footage recorded by SDPD officers present that day appears to back up Pease’s rendition of events.
According to Mandy Lien, one of the counter-protesters and a plaintiff in the suit, “police were allowing alt-right insurrectionists to come in through the alleys and attempt to instigate fights.”
The City Attorney, Catherine Richardson, who is tasked with defending this suit, has also acknowledged in her testimony that the Trump crowd was crossing over to the counter-protest side and instigating fights. “The unlawful assembly was declared to the north and I believe that the court could see that not everybody in that group was an anti-Trump person. There was somebody riding on a motorcycle who was pepper spraying people on the north side of the street.”
Pease told Unicorn Riot, “In response to video footage of pro-Trump protesters being allowed to come in through the side alleys, commit assaults on the anti-Trump side, and leave, deputy city attorney Cathy Richardson alarmingly argued this was a valid reason for dispersing only the anti-Trump side.”
In other words, the decision wasn’t a politically biased one- the north side was just where all of the violence was occuring.
Captain Novak stated in his declaration, however, that “the counter-protest group was extremely agitated and aggressive with law enforcement. Conversely, the Patriot March group was communicative with law enforcement and not aggressive.”
Yet, if that is true, why did multiple officers claim that the protest had been hijacked by Proud Boys who were anti-police?
Although the Stop the Steal rally and counter-protest were scheduled to start at 2:00 pm, numerous altercations and disturbances occurred earlier in the day. The released police body cam footage begins slightly after 2:00 pm.
At 2:19pm CT, Officer Matthew Zeitz’s body cam shows Trump supporters taking over the intersection at Mission Blvd. and Hornblend Avenue, adjacent to the beach. They can be seen wearing helmets, gaiters and tactical gear, while wielding flag poles as potential weapons.
Zeitz repeatedly tells one agitated Trump supporter to “back up.”
Twenty minutes into the footage, one of the pro-Trump protesters, identified as Chad Alvarez in court documents, walks towards the front of the police line. He paces back and forth before pulling the top off of a smoke grenade and lobbing it at the counter-protesters.
Although just feet from police when he does it, he returns to the Trump side without being stopped by the officers. The police do not arrest or detain him.
Two other police cameras log the same event.
An internal email conversation between officer David Hwang and the Watch Commander of the San Diego Police Department, obtained through a FOIA request, reveals that there was an open investigation into Alvarez at the time by the Joint Terrorism Task Force – a group composed of both local law enforcement and the FBI.
A Special Bulletin attached to the email reads, “Prior to about 1423 hours, the subject of an ongoing Joint Terrorism Take Force investigation was protesting on the “Pro-Trump” side, south of the SDPD field force line. [He] was armed with an unknown burning munition canister (likely military type smoke, CS or CN grenade. [He] then ran along the east curb-line of the mobile field force line, threw the canister north into the group of black clad protesters, and fled on foot.”
It’s unclear why he wasn’t detained.
At 2:25 we hear a dispatcher on Zeitz’s body cam stating that someone is being assaulted at 4400 Hornblend which is the alley adjacent to Skechers. At 2:26 Zeitz gets on his bike and drives to the location a block away. As he is driving, the dispatcher states “Im being advised that someone in the crowd has a knife, its a long blade in a sheaf.” As Officer Zeitz comes through the alley at 2:26 pm we see Trump supporter Ryan Luke, the individual who had been wielding the knife at the counter-protesters. He approaches Zeitz and says, “They just stole my bike and attacked me.”
Soon after, three counter-protesters, including a woman, are assaulted by Trump supporters in the same alley. One of the victims had a bloody nose. Several individuals captured the incident on video including Proud Boy and capital insurrectionist, Alberto Nunez. At the end of Nunez’s video he points his finger at the woman who was just brutally assaulted, and shouts, “she peed her pants.”
At the beginning of the Officer Cairns video, from 2:25 to 2:27, he is facing the Stop the Steal ralliers as they pace back and forth screaming “Fuck Antifa!”
At 2:28 he turns and faces the counter-protesters. A few minutes later we see one of the “antifa” case defendants, Brian Lightfoot, pleading with officers on the skirmish line. “They are the enemy of the state and the country. Why are you all facing us? They killed your people. We didn’t. They killed two of your officers. We didn’t. Black Lives Matter and antifa have not killed one officer. Not one. Not one.”
At 2:35 in the Officer Andres Sanchez video we see Joe Vargas, aka Maga Pit, standing next to the aforementioned Chad Alvarez. Vargas can be heard yelling at a counter-protester, “Me and you, over there!” repeatedly as he points to a side street.
At 2:36 unlawful assembly is called on a small megaphone pointed towards the counter-protesters, “If you refuse to move, chemical agents and other weapons will be used.”
At 2:40 the Trump group starts chanting, “Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye!”
At 3:21 pm a Trump supporter, who has infiltrated the counter-protest side, walks up to a woman, who is writing on the street with sidewalk chalk, and aggressively pushes her down. He crosses back through the police line back to the Trump side with no admonishment. According to Lien, “police did not even so much as detain him, and instead shook his hand as he walked away.”
By 3:34 the police are firing less lethals at the counter-protesters.
In response, angry counter-protesters in Joshua Duarte’s body cam, some with minor injuries, scream at the police. “What are you doing? Why are you so scared? Fuck all of you. Terrorizing us. Attacking us? We are just standing here peacefully protesting. And you side with the fascists that are attacking our nation? Didn’t they just kill a cop at the Capital?”
During Officer Duarte’s Grand Jury testimony on the antifa case, he is asked by a juror if the unlawful assembly order applied to the pro-Trump participants. His response was, “I think it just… I don’t know the exact answer of who exactly it applied to. I just know that at some point the command staff on the ground had deemed that this entire demonstration was… had reached the level that it was unlawful, and they wanted it to be dispersed.”
A media angle of the aggressive dispersal of the counter-protesters can be seen here:
The Trump crowd was not dispersed. Police aerial footage captures what happens next.
At 4:30 PM, a full hour after the counter-protestors have been fully dispersed, an officer on the radio, states “This protest appears to be hijacked by Proud Boys, They are not willing to go with the program, very anti-police, we had that discussion with them.”
At 4:33 PM a dispatcher states, “We do have somebody texting in on 911 saying that they are watching a Youtube livestream, says the author is (inaudible) a black switchblade in his right hand, a white male 50-60s balding, gray hair with a mustache, and it looks like the feed ended.”
The Trump supporters continued to march chanting “Fuck Your Feelings” and “Fuck antifa.”
Meanwhile an officer asks command, “Able, what’s our plan with the boardwalk? Are we going to allow everyone else to kind of just use the boardwalk as normal and possibly have these guys mix in with them or are we just going to shut down traffic on the boardwalk?” Command responds, “Let’s shut down traffic on the boardwalk and divert them elsewhere if they will go” giving free reign to the rowdy Trump crowd.
By 4:46 pm they have moved south down the boardwalk and are harassing patrons at a restaurant. “Able, at the Shore Club there’s a little jaw jacking going on on their front patio between the protesters and some citizens.”
As the altercations escalate, the mob swarms over the barrier and onto the patio.
At 4:51 an officer asks, “Is there an arrest team for the Shore Club?” Another officer responds, “We are getting arrest teams down there to you now.”
Another officer chimes in, “We have a couple of agitators that are with the protest getting in the faces of officers. One male wearing a black helmet, the other male is wearing a sleeveless black and white shirt… very intoxicated.”
No arrests were made and ultimately the police never forced them to disperse. Their numbers just slowly dwindled well into the evening.
The antifa case is set to go to trial in February 2024. Several defendants have taken plea deals.
City Attorney Catherine Richardson currently has an application filed with the governor’s office for a judicial appointment to the Superior Court.
No court date has been set yet for Pease’s lawsuit.