It was the tale of two protests.
In Huntington Beach, California, on Sunday, hundreds demonstrated over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man who died at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Protesters held signs that read “End Racism” and “Black Lives Matter,” according to CNN affiliate KTLA.
Police deemed the gathering an unlawful assembly, and asked the hundreds of protesters to disperse, police officials said in a statement.
One month ago, a different protest in the same Orange County community, which has a large Republican community, was left mostly alone.
Thousands turned up in early May, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, to demonstrate against California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to close all beaches to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Messages on their signs read “Don’t Take Our Freedom” and “Open OC!” They labeled Newsom a “traitor.”
It was not considered unlawful.
So what was different?
CNN reached out to Huntington Police Department regarding the differences between the protests. They did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment. But in a statement, police officials said Sunday’s protest became an “unlawful assembly after protesters became violent with numerous assaults.”
‘Stir crazy’ at home
In late April, about a month in to Newsom’s stay-at-home order, a heat wave hit Southern California.
In Los Angeles County, beaches remained closed. But Ventura and Orange Counties allowed citizens to go to the beach, as long as they adhered to a patchwork of guidelines and restrictions, including keeping parking lots closed to discourage outside visitors and limit crowds.
Seeking relief from the heat, thousands crowded the beaches – and photos quickly emerged of people packed under the sun in the sand, some not adhering to social distancing guidelines, others not sporting masks.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Frank Feerini, who was at Huntington Beach in Orange County, told CNN affiliate KABC on April 25. “How can you keep anybody in? I think that people want to get out. I think they’ve been cooped up, I think they’re going stir crazy.”
The images prompted frustration and concern from Newsom.
“Those images are an example of what not to see, people, what not to do if we’re going to make the meaningful progress that we’ve made in the last few weeks extend into the next number of weeks,” Newsom, a Democrat, said of the images showcasing crowds of beachgoers in the state.
The following week, he ordered the closure of Orange County beaches, calling it a “temporary pause.”
Orange County officials blamed “misleading photographs” for Newsom’s decision, saying a telephoto lens made it look like there were more people on the beach than there were in reality.
Michelle Steele, a county supervisor, said closing the beaches is “a clear example of unnecessary government overreach.”
The Huntington Beach City Council voted 5-2 in favor of directing the City Attorney to pursue any and all legal actions to challenge the beach closure, a news release from the city stated.
Turns out, many residents felt the same way as the county’s officials. On May 1, between 2,500 and 3,000 people attended protests over Newsom’s order, according to Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy.
While the beach was technically closed, officers did not appear to be enforcing the governor’s new closure order, CNN reported.
Out of sight from protesters, riot patrol officers on horseback staged under the Huntington Beach Pier, with one officer telling CNN they were there “just in case.”
One protester walked past a line of officers blocking access to the beach and asked police officers if he was breaking the law. The officer responded, “Yes, you are technically entering an unauthorized area,” but did not stop the protester as he proceeded past the line of officers and to the ocean.
Orange County reported a 22% increase in coronavirus cases amid protests to reopen beaches.
The protest came on the heels of many similar nationwide protests – in both red and blue states – over stay-at-home orders. People grew concerned about the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, and demanded the states reopen, even as cases continued to rise and the virus was far from contained.
After the standoff with Newsom, California allowed three cities – including Huntington Beach – to begin reopening its coastlines.
“I cannot impress upon people more that we’re not going back to normal,” Newsom said. “It’s back to a new normal, with adaptations and modifications until we get to immunity, until we get to a vaccine. We’ll get there.”
Demanding justice in the streets
Almost one month later, as more states slowly began to reopen amid the pandemic, the nation was shaken by yet another incident that provoked outrage.
However, this incident, unlike a global pandemic, felt familiar – as the nation had seen such police brutality against black people many times before.
Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, was killed at the hand of a Minneapolis police officer, who in a video is seen with his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes.
The former officer, Derek Chauvin, was fired, along with three other officers, after outrage increased. Chauvin was charged Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Sunday was the sixth day of protests nationwide. Demonstrators funneled their anguish in cities like Atlanta, New York and Washington into chants and signs of Floyd’s last few words – “I can’t breathe.” While some protests were peaceful, others were marked by chaotic scenes of violence, smashed windows and vehicles set ablaze.
Five hundred people participated in protests near the Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street in Huntington Beach on Sunday, the Huntington Beach Police Department said.
The protest was declared an unlawful assembly after protesters became violent with numerous assaults, and officers observed protesters with weapons such as pepper spray and various impact weapons, the department said.
“Multiple weapons including cinder blocks, weights and rocks were located hidden in several of our alleys in the downtown area, indicating a precursor to planned violence,” police said in a statement.
Huntington Beach Police said protesters were also blocking traffic on Pacific Coast Highway and refused to leave the area after being asked to do so by officers.
As of Sunday night, 17 suspects had been arrested in the city for various charges, police said.
Huntington Beach joined at least 40 cities in imposing a curfew. It went into effect at 8 p.m. PT on Sunday. The curfew will remain in place until further notice, police said.
CNN’s Hollie Silverman, Cheri Mossburg, Josh Campbell, Steve Almasy and Dakin Andone contributed to this report.