By Frank Gormlie
Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of El Cajon Wednesday, September 28th, in protest of the fatal shooting of Alfred Olango by police Tuesday afternoon. And on several occasions, the non-violent demonstrators faced off with helmeted police, as night fell and tensions mounted. This is my accounting of the protest that swept through the suburb of San Diego over a 7 hour period.
I had returned home a couple of hours earlier from a press conference and rally in front of the El Cajon Police station Wednesday morning, when I was shocked to see live-stream video on CBS8 of the protests that had continued – unbeknownst to me, as it had not been announced earlier.
Apparently, after the rally at the PD headquarters, at least a hundred demonstrators had walked back to the site of Olango’s shooting, at Los Panchos taco shop on Broadway, and over the course of the next couple of hours had managed to block several different intersections along Broadway.
Grabbing my gear, I once again set out for El Cajon – a city once known decades ago as a red-neck town.
Arriving in downtown, I drove around looking for the demonstrators, but couldn’t find them. I asked a couple on a sidewalk and they told me they were up at the trolley station. Wow, I thought, if the protesters couldn’t block a freeway, maybe the trolley was seen as another target. So, I peeled on up to the Trolley area. Every now and then, I’d see bunches of police officers – County sheriffs with helmets at the ready over here, Highway Patrol officers standing by their parked motorcycles, over there.
They were all on stand-by, ready for action. I’d never seen so many cops in El Cajon before.
There was no one at the Trolley Station from the protests, although I heard later that they had been there and had halted trolley service briefly.
Finally I decided to return to police headquarters, a fortress-looking building within spitting distance of the City Hall – Court complex. The only people there were media people and their cameras – several whom complained about not being let into the El Cajon mayor’s press conference that afternoon. How weird, I thought, the press not allowed into the press conference. At least one reporter blamed an “out-of-control independent stringer” who caused the city to close its doors to other media.
Waiting around in the PD parking lot, cornering what little shade there was, I began asking the various reporters and camera people if they knew what was happening, where the demonstrators were – and not one did – or would admit it.
Several kids on bikes came by and they claimed they had seen a number of protesters in the backs of police cars, presumably arrested. This was never confirmed and no one has reported any arrests.
A woman demonstrator who said she was able to make it back to the HQ because she was white, told me that protesters in the street had been blocked by police from making their way along Main Street, or returning to the earlier rally site near where we stood.
A police helicopter could be heard just to our north and east. It was circling an area, I was told, over the shooting site on Broadway, near Mollison. I had also been told that a vigil was to be held at the shooting site at 6pm.
Jumping in my car, I made my way over in that direction, about a half dozen blocks north, on a street that went under the freeway. That would be Interstate 8 – all entrances and exits were cordoned off by sheriffs, I couldn’t help but notice as I traveled.
Once at Los Panchos taco shop, I could see dozens of people hanging out in front, in the parking lot, on the sidewalk. In the rear of the restaurant where Olango was gunned down, was a sizeable crowd. Parking next to a media van, I made my way to the back and into the angry gathering.
A short African-American man was addressing the crowd with his bullhorn. From an organization Uhuru, he extolled the gathering on the virtues of Black nationalism. After he spoke a member of a leftist group spoke, calling for “revolution”. Many fists pumped the air. Group members wore T-shirts that bore the initials of “BA”, and it took me a few minutes to figure out that wasn’t the group’s name, but the initials of Bob Avakian, a leader of a leftist sect from the 1970’s. Wow, I thought, he’s still around? Is there now a personality cult around him, I mused.
Next up at the bullhorn was a pastor who extolled the virtues of the only way change could occur, through Jesus Christ. A low groan was heard from the crowd. He then asked for people to join him in prayer. Which some did.
Somebody had set up a white canopy, under which were boxes of water bottles, fruits and snacks for anyone to enjoy. How cool. This is organization, I thought.
On the other side of the canopy was the memorial for Alfred Olango, with candles and expressions of grief or solidarity. TV trucks sat in the nearby parking lot. A few reporters roamed the outskirts of the crowd.
Los Panchos was closed – out of respect for the candle vigil. But people were everywhere, in its front, along the sides – and more people continued to walk into the crowd as the hours ticked by. I found a half seat on the concrete base of a light near the drive-through and waited for whatever was to happen next. I suspected that at some point the crowd would move into the streets once again.
Seeing my good friend Genie, I called for her to join me over at the sideline. She had come out from Ocean Beach. We hung out until the crowd surged when we moved into the streets and I didn’t see her again that night. The guy who sat next to us had come out from Del Mar. The young Latino guy who shared the shade with us lived in El Cajon. He was amazed that the town used to be so redneck.
More chants, more fists were raised. The speaker was calling for “revolutionary leadership” to take over the demonstration.
Then there was the idiotic Trump supporter with a red cap – that caught the media’s attention. He had intentionally immersed himself into literally the center of the crowd, all the time running his phone video. After his cap was captured several times, he was chased from the rally – still videotaping. A bunch of cameras ran after him, in a scene that earned the entire demonstration a nasty mark, according to the reporters who gave chase and then reported it as the main item in their story on the demonstration.
But the energy the Trump guy had unleashed showed the tension and electricity in the air. Police in riot gear began to line up at the end of a nearby alley. As the sun drew lower, more people joined the event, having probably just gotten off work.
Organizers finally urged everyone to begin moving – and the crowd began walking down that very alley blocked off by batons and badges. Somebody figured out that was a wrong move, and everyone was asked to turn around and march back out onto Broadway – which made a lot more sense. This is where I lost my friend. Hundreds of people doing an about-face at the same time can be somewhat disruptive.
Hundreds surged out onto Broadway, turning west, surprising the first of many drivers caught up in the excitement. The flashing lights of cop cars could be seen down the street a few blocks away.
Once the mass of humanity took the north side of Broadway, we moved fairly quickly. Every now and then a squad of police cars, with sirens screaming, would race down or up the main streets. Going somewhere fast. The chants burst out. “No justice! No peace! No racist po-lice!” and “Black lives matter!”, or “what do we want? Justice!”
A few chants of “Release the tapes!” could be heard. The videotape has not been released yet, and supposedly it’s in the hands of Bonnie Dumanis, the District Attorney. Even the San Diego Union-Tribune, in Thursdays paper, called for its release in an editorial.
Once the crowd hit the intersection with Ballantyne – a north-south street, they swelled out into the intersection itself. The woman at the microphone on the mobile-amp told the crowd we could do anything we wanted, sit down, stand … I sat down, as my legs were starting to ache. No one else sat. A couple people hunched over. We held that intersection just for a couple minutes – surging once again, this time south in the direction of the freeway.
As we walked down the street, the crowd began getting spread out and several people yelled out for us to keep together. A couple guys walking next to me had bought some sixpacks and were soon chugging them. Parched, I managed to get a swig. It was now dark.
I ran into a young woman, Cheyenne and her friend. She asked me to take their photo so she could email it to herself. She held a sign calling for police accountability. He wore the Black Lives Matter black T.
We marched under the freeway and the yells and screams and chants rang out. Freeway underpasses are always good places to get good loud acoustics.
All along our march, the roving-microphone or mobile podium went with us and speakers would verbally encourage us to stay together and keep going, and stay focused, and tell us we were beautiful and strong. The speakers were mainly Black women and some of them really had a gift, a rap, of continuous promptings. Revolutionary rap music was also played every now and then, and part of the crowd would dance.
We took over another intersection in our march around El Cajon – this time at Ballantyne and Madison. Always on the lookout for a good place to sit and rest, I peered through the dark for a seat, but before I could move on that impulse, the crowd surged east on Madison. The residential street was fairly dark and a lot of residents came out to see what was up.
A few demonstrators would go up to the occupants of the blocked cars and try to talk to them about what was happening and asking them to honk their horns in solidarity. Many did, including a large semi-truck driver, pulling pipe. Cheers went up from the crowd when the driver leaned on his loud horn.
The crowd took over the intersection of Madison and Mollison for a few minutes. Enough time for me to grab a curb. I was clearly one of the older participants in this demonstration at this point. Hiking around and taking over intersections, playing cat-and-mouse with the cops is a young person’s game. But I was determined to carry on, although my legs felt like falling off.
A number of people yelled out for us to stay on streets with lots of lights, so we turned off of Madison and began marching north on Mollison. Every now and then I’d see a mainstream reporter, but as the march went on, fewer and fewer were visible.
At this point, I was limping, and one guy, sympathizing, asked me if I had water. When I offered my bottle to him, he said, “No, no, not for me, for you. With water, you’ll make it.” He had a slight African accent.
When we finally reached the intersection of Mollison and Broadway, I breathed a huge sigh of relief, as I knew the end was near, my car was parked nearby, and I could get some rest.
So I peeled off from the march, and found a Robertos, where I took a much-needed respite.
The only other people in the small restaurant were other demonstrators and a Latino couple who talked to me about the protests. I realized that with the spirit of the protest, there was a thick feeling of solidarity in the air. People were very friendly and open to talk to strangers – at a Robertos? That would never have happened except for what was happening in the streets outside.
In a Keystone cop incident, 6 patrol cars with lights and sirens raced east on Broadway. Where are they going, I asked myself. The demonstrators had gone the other way – west on Broadway. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the same police vehicles came screaming back in the opposite direction, as if they had figured out their error.
Refreshed by a chicken burrito, cold water and some caffeine, I again entered the arena of protest. I joined a young Chicano with headphones sitting on a low curb next to the parking lot. We had a good view of the intersection and could see deputy sheriffs forming a line along the median. They had riot helmets and batons. Okay, now what about to happen, I wondered.
I rejoined the crowd and worked my way closer to the front. As I approached Los Panchos from the east, the entire area was packed with people. Hundreds were in the parking lot and side area of the restaurant, and hundreds more were in the street. The crowd had swelled to as large as anything I had seen all day or night. It looked like it could be a 1,000 people. Probably, however, closer to five or six hundred. But it felt like a thousand.
But alas, here, just to the crowd’s west, stood a phalanx of police, with riot gear, and two barking dogs. Behind them stood another rank, with pepper gas guns at the ready. The crowd began to chant, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” I heard a police dog bark menacingly.
The faces behind those helmets looked blank, even filled with fear – or at least loathing.
At this point, the woman on the mike asked us to sit down, and the sit-in on Broadway began. A hundred took seats on the asphalt. And there we sat and waited and half relaxed. A guy with a guitar begin to strum and sing. Moments later, we began chanting Alfred Olango’s name.
This crowd is so diverse, I thought. Every ethnic group was here. Blacks mixed with Mexican-Americans and whites and Chaldeans and Kurds and a few Asian-Americans. I thought that I had never seen so many African-Americans demonstrating in San Diego before. Lots of women, young women were sitting down, raising their fists.
Suddenly, while I was texting my partner back at home with an update, there were yells and everyone jumped to their feet. I thought we were about to be pepper-sprayed. It turned out several people at the back of the crowd had thrown water bottles at the police line, and everyone had scrambled in anticipation of a rush from the police.
In a flash, the tension was back. People yelled at those who had made the throws. The crowd regrouped and some sat down again.
But the police line had moved also – back a few yards. A line of men from the protest linked arms across the street in an effort to both protect the crowd and prevent any demonstrator from moving on the police. More bottles were thrown, and some people ran after those who had failed to abide by the spirit of the demo.
The sit-in ended when folks realized the police had moved over a block away. The “retreat” was a very smart move on behalf of law enforcement. By moving away, they had de-escalated the situation. Tension died down, and people milled around, with many still in the street.
A doctor appeared in a white coat and stethoscope, holding a sign that read, “White coats for Black lives”. Some media and many demonstrators gathered around him, and gave him a round of applause.
The crowd began seriously dwindling as people figured out that nothing was going to happen here at Los Panchos. Everything was pretty calm by now. Flashing patrol car lights could be seen a block away. And I figured I could finally get my car out of the parking lot.
After 7 hours, I was toast. I shook hands with a few guys who had befriended me and excused myself from the largest protest that El Cajon had ever experienced.
Many had vowed to return the next day, that Saturday, to continue the protest, to demand justice, to demand a federal investigation – which has happened as announced by the mayor – and to demand the release of the entire video of the incident.
El Cajon has a redneck past but it is changing rapidly. More Mexican-American families have moved in or have stayed, as it clearly is becoming more diverse. This is good, I thought.
And El Cajon, a small city on the edge of the Finest City, has made national and international news. Its name is now next to Tulsa and Charlotte, and Fergurson, and …. the list is too long. It has to stop.
Last night, the El Cajon establishment paid the price for getting in the way of justice, for not ensuring justice and transparency, for not ensuring its cops are sufficiently training in handling people with mental problems. And last night, Alfred Olango lived.