Vargas: Dueling protests are dangerous and challenging to police

By Joe Vargas

Thousands of demonstrators from two groups with very different political views gathered in Laguna Beach Sunday to protest.

For a few tense hours, the normally serene beachfront was the epicenter of a maelstrom that started on the other side of the country in Charlottesville, Va.

I spent the entire day and most of the evening talking to people on all sides of the issues. There was a lot of yelling and not a lot of listening. There were group chants, people with bull horns and even some there to “twerk for peace.”

I interviewed Sheet Cake Lady, a nearly topless woman, self-described patriots, Trump supporters, Trump haters, people concerned with immigration policies, people who disguised their identities for fear of retribution and more. There were news cameras and people live streaming the event; some recorded themselves, perhaps for social media posting later.

Some people were surprisingly articulate in describing their grievances. Others, not so much.

I wasn’t there to protest. I was there to report on the police response.

Before the demonstrators showed up, the Laguna Beach Police Department installed vehicle barricades along most of the length of the Main Street Beach. It was a great move. Not only did it keep anyone from driving into the crowd – which, in Charlottesville, led to a woman being killed and others injured – but it contained the demonstrators on the beach area for most of the event.

Officers also deployed strategically to keep the opposing factions separated. That’s not an easy task at a dynamic event in a dynamic location. I witnessed at least a few knuckleheads who felt walking into the middle of the other side and taunting people was a smart thing to do.

When possible or necessary, officers raced in and quickly escorted troublemakers to the safer side of the beach. That went on all night.

More than 250 police officers from throughout Orange County responded, keeping the peace and eventually dispersing the crowds just after 9:30 p.m. Police made three arrests.

It was a great law enforcement response.

Clearly, the police response came with a huge price tag. I asked Sgt. Jim Cota from the Laguna Beach Police Department if he could assign a dollar amount to the cost of the police deployment. “At this point I couldn’t even begin to tell you,” he said.

As we saw in Charlottesville, the possibility of violence is ever present when you have two groups with opposing views protesting at the same place at the same time. Some of the demonstrators in Laguna Beach came prepared with helmets and gas masks.

These types of protests require a bigger response than traditional crowd control. Being a referee requires police officers to create physical barriers separating groups. If need be, they must then insert themselves between the groups and then ensure each gets to exercise their First Amendment rights safely. As officers stand their lines, they often became a target for the demonstrators.

The groups are often mobile. What happens when the two factions meet walking from the parking lots? What happens when they finally disperse?

If things go sideways, police officers are often blamed.

I hope that as these types of protests become more common, citizens understand it’s because the police are ready to protect your right to free speech that your voices get the opportunity to be heard.

Don’t jump and blame them when things don’t always go according to plan.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain who can be reached at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.

Editor’s note: Vargas broadcast live on BehindTheBadgeOC’s Facebook page for more than four hours on Sunday. His broadcast reached about 500,000 people.  Links are below.

Broadcasting live from Laguna Beach.

Posted by Behind the Badge OC on Sunday, August 20, 2017

We are live from the city of Laguna Beach were demonstrators have gathered and police departments from throughout the county have deployed.

Posted by Behind the Badge OC on Sunday, August 20, 2017

Broadcasting Live from the City of Laguna Beach demonstration.

Posted by Behind the Badge OC on Sunday, August 20, 2017

Live broadcast from the City of Laguna Beach demonstrations.

Posted by Behind the Badge OC on Sunday, August 20, 2017