Pepper sprayed at the frontlines: Saturday’s “riot” according to a student protester

Santa Ana protest hands up
Protestors put their hands up in front of SAPD on Bristol and McFadden on May 30. Melissa Campoverde / el Don

*We are using a pseudonym to protect the identity of the protestor. 

When studio arts major John Smith arrived on the corner of Bristol and McFadden on Saturday night to attend a scheduled protest against police violence, he immediately felt like something was off. People were gathered, but unlike the peaceful protest he attended in Orange earlier in the day, there was no clear organization or leadership. The more people who arrived, the less everyone understood what to do. 

By the end of the night, Smith — who said he was holding up a sign and repeating chants at the front of the protest line — would be tear-gassed four times. According to Smith, the police were armed with batons and had formed a line. They stood their ground and slowly pushed back on the protesters, using tear gas only when the crowd became unruly. The protesters stood their ground as well, returning to the front after being gassed.

“It’s like habanero mist in your eyes, nose and mouth,” Smith said in a text after getting home on Saturday. “The times it really got to me I started gagging and tears were falling down my face, but over time it just went away.”

By morning, breakaway groups had looted and damaged dozens of businesses up and down Bristol. A 6 p.m. curfew was instituted for Sunday, even though the scheduled protests that way were overall peaceful.

We interviewed Smith to ask him about his experience on the frontlines of one of Santa Ana’s

Why are you protesting?

Well, as a person of color, I think it’s really important for me to be a part of this. Personally, I feel very strongly about the plight of the Mexican man and the history of racism here in SoCal that a lot of people aren’t aware of. But at the same time I know, and I have known, I didn’t really have to study too much about it: the plight of the Black man. You hear it in culture, you hear it in pop culture, songs in general. You see it on the news all the time. And I think it’s important for Black and Brown to unite and stop this, really. 

Would you say they have similar problems?

They both experience being oppressed, yeah. 

Do you think destruction and violence are the answer? Like what happened last night with the looting?

I think, what I saw last night, there was a distinct divide within the crowd. There were the people that were there to peacefully protest and were actively posting on social media to not turning it into a riot, trying to keep it peaceful. A lot of people kept chanting “Keep the peace” whenever people started getting rowdy. There were a lot of arguments within the community, within the crowd, and I think that there were the peaceful protesters, the people who knew what they were there for, and then there were those that were just completely ignorant. They had no idea what they were there about, they just saw people were getting crazy and they thought it was exciting. You could tell. They had no idea who George Floyd was. They just wanted to fuck shit up, get drunk and party. 

What was your plan when you attended the protest? 

Well, I was at another protest earlier in Orange.  I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew was that I needed to support, right? I saw a post somewhere that said, ‘Don’t make this about you. Just prioritize black people’s safety in the crowds and just be a body. Just support.’ And that was what I did. I wasn’t provocative, I just held up the signs and repeated the chants. In Orange, it went well. It was pretty peaceful. People were just marching in a circle and the cars driving were honking in support. Nothing got too crazy or out of hand. But, in Santa Ana that obviously didn’t happen. When I got there I could tell it wasn’t as organized. There were a lot of people that were just passing by and wondering what was going on. And then when a lot of people came, like when it was crowds and crowds of people, it was hard to know what to do. I just kinda went to the front line cause I wanted to stay with the Gen Z protesters that were being brave at the front and they knew exactly what they were there for. You could tell, cause they were the ones who were starting the chants and they were the ones who stayed on the topic. 

So you think the younger people are more aware and involved in the movement?

Definitely. One hundred percent. I’ve seen a few older people there, but at the front, definitely Gen Z. Like among myself, I was there at the front and the people that were there with me holding the signs directly facing off with the police officers, they were all young. 

Did you see any older people? Like people our parent’s age? Or Millenials? 

Not too close. Maybe [millennials], I don’t know. But I think I saw a lot of people that were younger than I was going up to the front. 

Can you tell me a bit more about what you experienced at the frontline? 

I did get tear gassed a few times. Basically what would happen was, at the front, just chanting directly at the police officer’s faces. For me personally, one of the things that I remember, it was like the most surreal moment, of the whole night for me, because when I was looking at those police officers, a lot of them looked scared. Their eyes were just kinda darting everywhere and they looked anxious. They didn’t look serious, they didn’t look angry and hateful like some of the rioters. Yeah, I’m gonna say ‘rioters,’ not protesters. [The cops] didn’t look menacing, they looked really scared, I’m not gonna lie. They looked scared. I mean of course, there were some that were, I guess higher-ups or whatever that were walking around behind the line and saying something to other officers. They looked a little more aggressive, but I don’t know. I think it’s because…I mean I don’t know. I don’t wanna assume anything, I just wanna stick to the facts of what I know. 

I heard that vans were being called in with more officers at one point. How did you feel when you saw things escalating?

I was scared. Personally, standing there at the front, I was scared. I was like like ‘What the fuck? What is this for? What’s the point of this? And there were a few moments where I was thinking to myself, ‘See what they would do is, there was that line of police, and they would keep pushing it forward. Just keep pushing it forward. They wouldn’t push us physically, they would just approach with their batons and everybody would walk back.’ And that’s the way it went time and time again. Sometimes, when people were too rowdy and pushing forward, that’s when they would throw the tear gas and everyone would disperse. The police would stand their ground and once the tear gas went out, we would go back to the front. 

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People were also throwing fireworks at the officers. Do you think those were the rioters or the protesters?

The rioters. Because the protesters kept…I kept hearing again, and again, “Stop throwing shit.” Actually, those rioters… they were so ignorant as to like what it was about and what they were doing cause they would literally leave lit fireworks in the middle of the protesters. Not even at the police. They were throwing them at the protesters. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s just blatant ignorance, honestly. The fireworks, I get it, trying to intimidate the cops or whatever. When they started getting big fireworks, like it sounded like a gunshot-type shit, and especially when it was really close, the protesters would get mad at the rioters and be like ‘Yo, what the fuck are you doing? Like, stop.’ And that’s when altercations would come out within the crowd. 

Were you ever scared that you were gonna get arrested? Did you have a plan if you got arrested?

I didn’t have a plan, but…oh yeah, that’s what I was gonna say earlier until one of the other questions about the big vans. I was scared that the police were going to get aggressive for no reason. And that I was at the front and would get beaten down. I was scared. I almost feel like it would’ve been worth it [to be arrested].

Was yesterday your first protest?

Well, the Orange one was my first one. The Santa Ana one was the second one. 

Is there a moment from the Orange or the Santa Ana protest that stands out to you?

In a positive light, for the Santa Ana one I think what stood out to me was seeing how many young people were throwing themselves in front of Black people to protect them. And who were really aware. And then, in a negative way, I think one of the things that stuck out to me was seeing the blatant ignorance of the ones that had no idea what it was about. 

Were the people you would call rioters also Gen Z or could you not tell?

Actually, yeah. Some of them were on skateboards, like maybe in high school. Some of them were probably my age. And some of them probably late 20s, early 30s. And then, at the Orange one, I think what stood out to me there was that there were so many different races there that were peacefully protesting. It was honestly a really nice thing to see there. A lot of white people who didn’t make it about them either, they knew. And then there were Palestinians and Jewish people, and Black people and Mexicans — a lot of Mexicans. Oh and Asians too. So yeah, it was crazy. 

Protestors at the Orange Circle move up Chapman Ave. Emily Hernandez / el Don

You’ve been a resident of Santa Ana for a long time, you basically grew up here. Does the difference between the two protests disappoint you?

I think that the difference is poverty. 

Right, because that area in Santa Ana where they protested is a very low-income area.

Very low-income. And there’s a lot gang affiliation over there. It’s no surprise that shit was gonna get crazy. But, again, it’s a systematic issue not necessarily that those rioters in Santa Ana were bad. It’s just that their education system failed them. I think that’s what it is. 

Speaking of education, you’re also a student at Santa Ana College. Do you think your education at the college somehow influenced your beliefs?

One hundred percent. I think Santa Ana College taught me how to critically think about politics and the government, and to be aware of what propaganda is. And then also, it’s taught me about everything that they leave out of history textbooks that is really important, really complex, and I think it’s crazy that they don’t talk about that, or they don’t introduce it at an earlier age. Because a lot of the population just lives their lives without ever being aware of it. I definitely think that Santa Ana College has helped me truly understand the world that I live in and what’s happening around me. 

Is there anything that you want to share, any statements or calls to action? 

I think that it’s really important for the Chicanos of Orange County to really put in the effort and the time to understand the complexity of these issues, and to join with the Black community. Because if we don’t, then I don’t think anything is going to change for them and I don’t think anything is going to really change for us either. And I think right now is a really important opportunity to make an impact that we might never get again. 

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