It was a peaceful protest until it wasn’t – and it sparked a visit from the militia over the weekend.
Oakdale became a focus community during the past week as a Wednesday morning, June 3 Black Lives Matter rally gave way to a violent incident in the afternoon. With reports of a possible second rally on the weekend, a Central Valley militia group made its way into town and was at an F Street business on Saturday afternoon. There was, however, no second coordinated rally as rumored on Saturday. The rally on June 3 was in response to the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25; similar protests and rallies have been staged across the country.
During the initial Black Lives Matter rally, a few hundred people gathered in the Oakdale Town Plaza to hear speakers and then march around an area downtown. A slightly different route was followed than the original one proposed due to some counter-protestors reportedly seeking to impede the rally’s progress, said officials.
Stopping at the gazebo in Wood Park along South Yosemite Avenue, more speakers offered thoughts and then the group made its way back to the plaza. From there, the Black Lives Matter organizers thanked the participants and asked them to be safe and vacate the area.
Trouble arose a few hours later, when some remaining protestors and counter-protestors clashed; police reported a couple of arrests in connection with the incident, but said it was quickly quelled and there were no serious injuries. The use of a flashbang device brought the crowd under control.
Stanislaus County did declare a “State of Emergency” in the county on June 3 in light of several protests staged around the region.
The proclamation allows the county to apply for state and federal funding for law enforcement efforts “to ensure public safety, including keeping safe those peacefully speaking out against racism and demonstrating for justice.”
Many in the community remained on edge in the days following the original protest, with some downtown stores remaining boarded up.
Social media was abuzz during the latter part of the week with the rumors of a second weekend protest and the potential for a violent response.
Organizers involved with the June 3 rally also took to social media, indicating that they were not planning a return to Oakdale and urged people to not congregate at the plaza to avoid escalating tensions.
When the militia came in, Oakdale Police Chief Scott Heller said his department did respond.
“The group was not welcome by our police department,” Heller explained. “Once we learned of their presence, we immediately approached the group and advised them that their presence was doing more harm and raising tensions. We also clearly told them we did not need their assistance. If we do need assistance, we have the support of our partner agencies.”
Heller said there were some traffic control devices and fencing used in the plaza over the weekend in case there was another rally, but it did not materialize.
“Our number one goal was to de-escalate the situation and provide a safe space for a potential protest. During our meeting with the members of this (militia) group, they were within the area of the business and within the premises of the business. They assured our officers that they would remain within the private property of the business,” Heller added.
However, the chief said residents did contact the department with concerns about seeing the militia members elsewhere.
“We were later advised this group was seen armed in public areas. That was brought to our attention after the “militia” left Oakdale. We will not tolerate any groups intimidating our community or causing problems. Our department takes this matter seriously and is currently reviewing the group’s actions and will assess what measures will be taken,” said the chief.
Oakdale Mayor J.R. McCarty also offered some thoughts on his Facebook page about the incidents.
“The protest here in our city started out very peaceful and respectful. The words spoken on Wednesday by some of the speakers were meaningful and unifying. Unfortunately a handful of people on both sides put a stain on our great city. These people do not represent Oakdale. It broke my heart to see this because we are better than that. OPD and the other law enforcement agencies worked hard to keep everyone safe. We all should come together as one, no matter what race or nationality we are,” McCarty noted. “I do not condone the actions of the police officer who killed George Floyd. I pray justice will be served. One bad police officer does not represent the great men and women who wear the badge. I want all citizens and visitors to feel safe and welcome to our town. May God bless our city.”