SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It was shaping up as a protest rally over COVID-19 shutdowns — with the possibility of a haircut on the side.
What was expected to become a major rally against California’s coronavirus stay-at-home order got underway Saturday at the Capitol in Sacramento, as two busloads of protesters rolled up from Southern California, hundreds of others arrived and more than 100 CHP officers kept watch.
Liberty Fest was billed as a cross between a tailgate party, music festival and protest. Its website said it would be country’s largest Memorial Day weekend protest against coronavirus stay-at-home orders.
Hours before the official noon start, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on the sidewalk on 10th Street, facing the west steps of the Capitol. Many wore T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Resist. Rise. Revolt. Reopen.” Masks were practically nonexistent. Rock and country music played over a loudspeaker.
A flatbed truck, set up for speeches and live music, bore the sign, “Jesus, heal this land,” and at least four people brought signs vowing to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. A card table offered American flags and Donald Trump merchandise for sale, while another vendor was selling shirts with the slogan, “1776. Forever Free.” Dozens of port-a-potties lined the sidewalk, and several area restaurants set up food trucks in the vicinity.
And while organizers vowed to keep the protest peaceful, some participants were preparing to defy at least some of the restrictions imposed by Newsom in California.
La Donna Christensen, 39, a Roseville cosmetologist and hair stylist, set up six temporary stations on the sidewalk by the west side of the Capitol. She expected to start cutting hair later in the morning — despite warnings of a license suspension from the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology — and said the remaining stations would be available for any stylist wanting to use them.
“We’re going to do haircuts for donations, basically try to show that being in the cosmetology industry … is one of the most sanitary industries in the state,” she said. “Why do they close down the salons but we can go to Home Depot, Walmart, Target? It’s ridiculous.”
Haircuts, manicures and other services performed in close quarters remain prohibited for the time being under Newsom’s phased-in approach to resuming economic activities.
More than 100 California Highway Patrol officers strolled through the Capitol grounds. Unlike previous rallies, they didn’t immediately don helmets or line up along the fence line guarding the west side of the Capitol — the traditional spot for protests. They closed 10th Street to vehicle traffic as a portion of the crowd spilled onto the adjacent Capitol Mall.
The rally came as Newsom has opened up much of the California economy, including restaurants and shopping malls. But demonstrators demanded that Newsom go further.
“We’ve got to reopen everything now,” said Thinh Nguyen, 38, an unemployed manicurist living in North Highlands. His father, Vuong Tat Nguyen, who served in the South Vietnamese army, led a small group of pro-Trump demonstrators chanting, “Four more years.”
Wearing a scarf that merged the American flag with the flag of his homeland of South Vietnam, Thinh Nguyen said Newsom is overstating the COVID-19 risks. He added that he isn’t convinced Newsom will allow him and other manicurists to reopen anytime soon.
“Whatever he says is all lies, this governor,” he said.
Many in the crowd shared Nguyen’s belief that the risks of the coronavirus have been exaggerated. “It’s a lot of hype,” said James Reed, a medical marijuana grower who arrived from Siskiyou County.
His pot farm hasn’t been shuttered by Newsom’s order, but he said, “It’s not my livelihood that I’m worried about.”
Many of Newsom’s critics are demanding the right to go to church, and among those in attendance was Pastor Tim Thompson, a Riverside County clergyman who led a previous rally at the Capitol.
Thompson said he appreciated President Trump’s announcement Friday that he would order governors around the country to allow religious institutions to reopen. But Thompson added that Trump’s comments really aren’t necessary.
“It’s not up to the government to tell the churches what to do,” said Thompson. He added that his 412 Church in Murrieta has “been open full for the past month.”
Pressure is growing on Newsom to allow churches to reopen. The U.S Justice Department recently warned him that prohibiting religious services is unconstitutional — even though federal judges have turned aside legal challenges brought by California churches against Newsom’s order. Meanwhile, a large group of California clergy has vowed to reopen their churches for services May 31.
For his part, Newsom said Friday he would issue new guidelines on religious services within days. A large group of California clergy has vowed to hold in-person church services May 31.
Meanwhile, Newsom won a legal victory late Friday when a federal judge in Sacramento refused to allow a health club owner to reopen.
U.S. District Judge John Mendez refused to grant Sean Covell, owner of three Fitness System clubs in Sacramento, Lodi and West Sacramento, a temporary restraining order that would have overturned Newsom’s restrictions. Covell said Newsom’s order violated the First Amendment, but the judge said gyms have nothing to do with freedom of speech. On Saturday, Covell appealed to his gym members to donate to a GoFundMe account to keep his staff on the payroll.
Saturday’s rally was organized by various “Reopen California” organizations demanding Newsom end California’s restrictions, as well as the CHP’s temporary ban on state property. Previous rallies at the Capitol have drawn hundreds and one resulted in multiple arrests.
One group arriving at the Capitol Saturday, an anti-vaccination organization called the Freedom Angels Foundation, said it chartered buses from Southern California — sold out at $30 per adult and $50 per family, according to the Angels’ website. The anti-vaccination activitists planted signs in the ground, including one that claimed that a coronavirus vaccine would be used as a “weapon of mandated depopulation.”
Demonstrations have erupted nationwide over stay-at-home orders, and have included business owners concerned about their livelihoods, parents worried about their children being locked out of school or church and people angry that their right to protest has been curtailed.
The Reopen California Facebook page has 170,000 members. Its logo is a parody of the California flag, with the bear upside down. Its members have varied interests; some are fighting California’s vaccination laws while others are mostly focused on Newsom’s executive order. Some of the protesters have brought giant banners with a picture of Newsom wearing a Hitler mustache. Many others have shown up wearing Donald Trump hats and shirts.
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California’s protests have been tense at times — 32 people were arrested at the Capitol on May 1 after hundreds refused CHP orders to disperse. Subsequent demonstrations have been a lot calmer as protesters stuck to the sidewalk while CHP officers guarded the western perimeter of the Capitol grounds.
A website advertising Saturday’s demonstration said: “This is a non-violent rally. No violence will be tolerated and anyone displaying violence and/or destructive behavior is not associated with the rally and disavowed by the other participants.”
The CHP banned protests at the Capitol after a huge throng demonstrating on the grounds in late April ignored social distancing guidelines. Conservative groups have challenged the ban in court but so far have been unsuccessful.
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