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Watsonville—The Watsonville Brown Berets often push people’s buttons.
To some, even for a group known for its militancy, the Berets crossed a line Friday while protesting a visit by California first lady Maria Shriver.
But others characterized the group’s action, which drove Shriver to abruptly end her tour of the downtown farmers market, as a peaceful albeit passionate protest.
As for the Brown Berets themselves, they offered no apologies Monday for what Mayor Antonio Rivas described as “rude and offensive behavior.”
Tomas Alejo, one of the leaders of the Berets, said when the governor’s wife shows up in Watsonville just a few months before a gubernatorial election the time was right to call attention to issues affecting the community.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s policies—from a successful effort to repeal a law that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses to increases in fees at California’s colleges and universities—have harmed Watsonville’s Latinos, Alejo said.
“Our intention was not to frighten her,” Alejo said. “She had plenty of burly security around her. We were staying at our distance but we wanted to make sure she didn’t have a photo op for his election campaign. . . We have nothing to apologize for.”
Watsonville police Capt. Manny Solano said police and Shriver’s security expected protesters. But protesters’ personal attacks on Shriver, yelling at her to leave, telling her she wasn’t welcome, suggesting she pick strawberries and shouting that her handout wasn’t needed, was disturbing, Solano said. He said aside from keeping the protesters at a distance, there was little police could do.
Tensions flared when some in the crowd began to challenge the protesters, criticizing them for attacking Shriver, Solano said. The first lady’s security team thought the situation was dangerous enough to pull the plug on the visit, he said.
“It was not so much dangerous in my opinion, but it was very difficult to provide protection with people trying to interfere with the visit,” Solano said, adding some protesters were trying to push closer, and that the situation could have gotten out of hand if Shriver hadn’t left.
The governor isn’t faring well among Latinos in polls, and considering the city was a hotbed of student activism over the immigration issue earlier this year, no one should have been caught off guard by the passion of the protest, Luis Alejo said.
But Mireya Gomez Contreras, who staffed a YWCA Watsonville table at Friday’s event, said she was glad to see the protest and she saw others in the crowd applaud.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about youth and about how people can create change,” Contreras said. “Protests got women the right to vote, and look at the ‘60s, the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano movement. We got a lot.”