Nevada City, CA grapples with attack on BLM protesters

Internal and public investigations are underway

BLM marchers approach a line of counter protesters who physically assaulted them and stole several of their cell phones on August 9, 2020 - photo: screen capture from a video taken by Josh Wolf.

Last night, following the attack on BLM protesters in Nevada City on Sunday August 9, the Nevada City Council called a special online meeting to hear public comment and discuss possible actions in response to the event.

Along with Mayor Erin Minett, Vice Mayor Duane Strawser, and council members Doug Fleming and Daniela Fernández, Nevada City Attorney Crissy Hodgson, City Manager Catrina Olson, and Chief of Police Chad Ellis were present during the Zoom meeting.

The City Council secretary read an hour’s worth of written public comment into the record. All written comment regarding the attack on BLM protesters, some 350 emails, is available on the Nevada City website. Police bodycam footage from the August 9 melee is posted on the City’s YouTube page.

Several people who were assaulted during the event spoke at the special meeting. Graham Hayes was walking home after dinner with his family during the protest on August 9.

“I witnessed what I’m not calling a counter protest group. I appreciate that sentiment, but that shouldn’t be what they’re called, but they’re certainly violent assailants and weren’t demonstrating anything but violence. I witnessed them basically harassing a clearly peaceful group.

“A large group of people walking and observing what I could only describe as, and it should be punctuated, is complete incompetence on the part of the police. I decided to walk with the group, as it was clear that police were not going to assist in assuring the safety of the community members, many of whom I recognized.

“After the police denied me assistance several times in what I was witnessing in terms of violent attacks on other people, so I began to film an individual who had already stolen two cell phones and other personal property. He proceeded to steal my cell phone. He body slammed me, and his accomplice choked me out. Six of my vertebrae are dislocated. I have two dislocated ribs, several contusions on my body and a dislocated hip.

“Police made it virtually impossible for me to make report in a timely manner. In fact, I spent not only that night but three days afterwards tirelessly calling, spending time at the police station before they would actually take a report from me, which they handled in a completely terrible way according to the DA’s assessment of their report.

“And regardless of the 5 eyewitness accounts I have to the assault on me and video footage showing what clearly is a body slam and clearly me being choked out, the police have only arrested one of those individuals. These are two of several individuals who are on film and have eyewitness accounts, and again, only one individual was arrested.”

James Steven Smith (wearing the Trump Strikes Back shirt) was arrested on August 14 and charged with felony assault and felony theft. In this image, Smith attacked Black Lives Matter marchers in Nevada City, California on Sunday August 9, 2020 – image: screen capture from a video recorded and produced by Josh Wolf

Guari Delgado was a BLM protester on August 9.

“I’ve lived in the community for 48 years, and this was the first time I’ve ever been ambushed on the street,” Delgado said via Zoom. “It was apparent from the beginning of the demonstration, when it was assembling, that there were a number of white nationalists and white supremacists gearing up to do something. I didn’t know what.”

Delgado said he mostly avoided the assailants but saw a Nevada City police officer detain a BLM marcher.

“What I saw was an officer pull a young white man wearing a mask dressed in black out of the crowd, one of the protesters, one of the BLM marchers. By the way, this BLM march is being called mixed race, and it was mostly white and very few people of color, many allies, but very few people of color.

“What transpired was that this man was taken out of the crowd with a wrist lock and pushed up against the wall. I decided I better walk over and witness what was taking place at the very least. I stood nearby and listened, and the police officer was telling the young man that it was his job to clear the streets and that he wanted him off the street. And the young man, in pain, agreed to clear, get off the street not stay there, and the officer let him go. That was the only police intervention that I saw was one of the protesters being manhandled by a police officer.”

A woman who identified herself as Olivia was a BLM marcher on Sunday August 9 and had questions for the Nevada City police.

“So I want to know why the police didn’t arrest the first assailant to set the standard that violence would not be tolerated? Why? When several witnesses pointed out their attacker did law enforcement not get their identities to investigate the claims later? How much violence is too much violence for them to ignore? And why did the police not stop these people who claim to fight on their behalf?

“In terms of my attack, I have made a report including the identity of my main attacker, but no arrest has been made. I’ve spent countless hours collecting and organizing evidence including video footage, identification of over a dozen assailants, proof of character and premeditation. I’m currently being threatened by this group. They even share pictures of my tattoos to help identify me in public.”

A woman who identified herself as Bethany addressed the Zoom meeting. She, like many others, berated the Nevada City police for their actions, or lack of action on August 9.

“Law enforcement present with us at this march took an oath to protect all civilians and uphold the law beyond their own bias and they absolutely failed to uphold that commitment.”

Following public comment and a few remarks from council members, Nevada City Chief of Police Chad Ellis addressed the meeting. He said the recent events are unprecedented. Ellis said, without any warning, his officers were not prepared for a violent confrontation.

Hear Chad Ellis’ comments.

“We’ve handled many, many, many protests in the past in Nevada City, which have all been peaceful. So this is something different than we’ve seen before,” Ellis said via Zoom. “We’ve never seen the counter protesters. That’s a new caveat to what we’re dealing with as well. So most of the protests that we have in Nevada City are on the sidewalks with individuals holding signs, and we rarely have them take to the streets. And obviously this one was met with counter protesters and erupted into what people described tonight as chaos.”

Ellis said he has spoken with the officers who were on the scene, and they, according to Chief Ellis were overwhelmed.

“It was overwhelming. A lot of the things that happened between everybody was just, it was overwhelming. That’s the word that they utilize. So the one thing that we didn’t have for this particular event, which is extremely unfortunate, because in other protests, we usually have some kind of warning. This one, the police department didn’t have the warning that I think we should have had or could have had to be more prepared for this specific event,” Ellis said.

A Permit for a Protest?

Zoom meeting attendees tossed around the idea of having to register or get a permit for a protest, but Chief Ellis and council members spoke in opposition to the idea on Constitutional grounds, though Ellis did say that if they had known about the protest, police would have had a stronger, different presence.

“The police department didn’t have the warning that I think we should have had or could have had to be more prepared for this specific event,” Ellis said. “So what we’ve done in the past, when we’ve heard of big protests potentially coming to Nevada City has been to reach out to our local partner agencies.

“We generally have a big briefing. We determine arrest teams that will be included, should violence erupt, and who takes what positions … we didn’t have that opportunity here. So we were underprepared given the situation that happened.

“And I think moving forward, as we hear about protests that come into the city, we are going to have to treat every one, whether it’s rumor or a legitimate protest like it has the potential to erupt into something like we saw last Sunday. And that’s just unfortunate. Like I said, it’s different than where we’ve been,” Ellis said.

In considering a policy, Ellis and council members expressed a cognizance that BLM protesters do not telegraph their protests to prevent the attendance of counter protesters, so the confidentiality of a protest notification would be key.

Nevada City manager Catrina Olson suggested a portal through which protesters could anonymously alert police and other City officials that they intend to hold a protest.

Council member Daniella Fernández said that getting a permit undermines the intended effects of a public protest.

“I just want to point out that the nature of protests are to disrupt the status quo, to create an instance in the community where people are saying, ‘hey, this issue is important. This issue is timely,'” Fernández said.

“I wonder did john Lewis and and MLK have a permit to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma? And so there’s this way in which I think it’s important to name that that’s what protests are supposed to do. They’re supposed to disrupt the status quo, business as usual, to bring attention to things.”

Investigations

During his comments Chief Ellis described 3 investigations underway. The first focuses on the incidents of the protest on August 9.

“The first thing that happens is the criminal investigation into assaults or batteries or thefts that occurred during the incident itself. For that specific investigation, we have assigned Angela Ford, who is a retired DA investigator and a reserve police officer with our agency to lead that investigation. So she has been working close with Officer Brian Fish from our department in taking statements from individuals. So as everybody mentioned tonight there has been one arrest on that. And there is multiple other cases that are moving forward with prosecution at the District Attorney’s office,” Ellis said.

Chief Ellis said it is difficult to prosecute a crime in court if a victim does not come forward to press charges. He encouraged those who had been assaulted to come forward and levy charges, if they have not already done so.

The second investigation is internal and will not be made public, as it concerns police personnel matters, to include the chief himself.

“We’ve hired a outside third party private investigator to look into the actions of the officers or inactions, as we’ve received multiple community and citizen complaints about them not responding to the action. So that is what’s called an internal investigation and will be handled and paid for by the City for this third party individual to come in. And I can only anticipate that I and my actions after the event will probably be included in that investigation itself. So the difference with that particular investigation is it is confidential, it’s personnel matters and it will not be available to the public, and I think there is the need for transparency.”

Chief Ellis referred to the third investigation as an “after action review” or “after action report,” a publicly available investigation into the incidents of August 9.

“Generally those are handled by an outside individual as well who would come in and get all of the evidence and the totality of the circumstances regarding the entire event, whether it be the Patriot or counter protesters or BLM or our officers, and they kind of come up with just a large, encompassing investigation that would be available to the public. And I think that’s what’s needed,” Ellis said. “I think people are wanting to know exactly what happened, why certain actions were taken and why they were not.”

Threats Against Elected Officials

The public debate over the August 9 incident has been bitter and tinged with threats and violent, racist innuendo. Mayor Minett and Council Member Fernández said they have received numerous threatening letters and calls since the attacks on August 9.

“Some of us have received, are being bullied online, emailed threats, is that a crime? Can I do anything about it? Can I file a police report about that,” asked Mayor Minett of Chad Ellis.

“Depending on the threats you’re receiving. If you’re getting threats of violence and or death as a public official, then absolutely,” Ellis said.

Is Another Protest Planned for this Sunday?

There is a rumor that there will be another BLM protest this upcoming Sunday in Nevada City. Mayor Minett asked about police presence.

“So if we’re going to have this one this Sunday … are you guys … so you will prepare for that? What will that look like,” asked the mayor.

“We’ll prepare based on the rumor mill,” Ellis said. “I mean, we don’t have any solid information that in fact it is going to happen. So given the circumstances that we’re in currently, because of some of the things that happen on the night (of August 9), we have to be as prepared as we can be, which would be what I would call all hands on deck. All officers that are that are with the NCPD are going to be in Nevada City on Sunday.

“And it’ll be working with our partners agencies, Grass Valley, CHP and the Sheriff’s Department to say, you know, ‘what staff can and will you have available should we need assistance on Sunday,’ and it’s hard because you don’t have a specific time you don’t have a specific date. Sometimes we hear it may be in Grass Valley, maybe in Nevada City and some of the conversation that we’ve had in the past is, you know, all of the local agencies are going to have to get together and do some kind of training and come up with some kind of protocol on how the response is going to look should something like this happen again in any of our areas.”


Brian Bahouth has been a public media journalist since 1996 and is the founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support is work here.