Private SLO County Facebook Groups are Targeting Black Lives Matter Protesters

Protest Five Cities logo (Source: Facebook)

San Luis Obispo County residents witnessed an increase in Black Lives Matter protests, a number of private, invite-only Facebook groups have appeared to target peaceful protesters and residents criticizing an Arroyo Grande business’ controversial reaction to the protests.

One of those groups, “Protect Five Cities” was founded on June 2 by Oceano residents Paul and Nicole Karp. The group’s stated mission is “to allow the citizens and business owners of the Five Cities Area to share information regarding the protests and other events taking place in these recently uncertain times.” The administrators asked for discussions respectful with regards to race, political affiliation, sexual orientation and religious beliefs.

Like other “Protect” groups throughout SLO County, “Protect Five Cities” have served as a hotbed for targeted harassment against protesters, residents supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and government officials. The group grew exponentially in membership once armed men appeared on rooftops during a June 5 protest in Arroyo Grande. The Pit owner John Hackleman told KSBY that he put armed men on the roof of his business after hearing rumors about protests in Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach. Hackleman’s decision drew community outcry. Critics of the move have stated the appearance of armed men on rooftops needlessly intimidated protesters while The Pit supporters have chided critics for attacking the Hackleman’s legal, constitutional rights.

In a Facebook video addressing her constituents, Arroyo Grande mayor Caren Ray expressed displeasure over The Pit’s actions but stated their conduct was lawful.

Prior to the protest, Hackleman stated in a 24-minute long video that all protesters around the U.S. should be held responsible for the actions of rioters, looters and bad actors. He cited as examples looting and vandalism that took place in Santa Monica, San Diego and Santa Maria. However, most of the protests that took place in SLO County have been peaceful. On June 1, a group of individuals broke windows and stole items from Santa Maria’s Town Center Mall. According to the San Luis Obispo Police Dept., a group of teenagers unaffiliated with the protest vandalized a few stores in Downtown San Luis Obispo.

After the protest took place and The Pit was under heavy scrutiny, Hackleman fired back at his critics in a second profanity-laced Facebook video. He took aim at critics who expressed support for boycotting his business because he was expressing his constitutional rights. He criticized someone in particular, a person named Jenn Beloved. He spelled out her name to viewers and made a series of misogynistic remarks. On June 8, Hackleman published an apology video, stating he didn’t mean to intimidate any good people protesting, but doubled down on his original reasoning to have armed men watching over the protests.

Despite taking a more apologetic tone, Hackleman’s wife Heather DeMoss Hackleman has spurred emotionally provocative discussions in “Protect Five Cities,” specifically targeting a random sampling of residents supporting a boycott of The Pit. Inspired by Mrs. Hackleman’s posts, one resident shared a list of over 70 Facebook users tagged by Grover Beach councilwoman Mariam Shah in a post raising awareness of armed men standing on the rooftops of The Pit and Grand Barbers. The post was met with responses from “Protect Five Cities” users who made threatening remarks about them. The author of this article was a name on the list. Members, including spouses of active officers and retired officers, have repeatedly berated Shah before, during and after she made a guest appearance on the Dave Congalton Show on June 8.

One post shared a number of comments made on the Arroyo Grande Nextdoor forum about “The Pit,” which contained unredacted names of Pit critics. I reached out to residents named in the screenshots. At least two of them have confirmed receiving harassing messages shortly after the screenshots were shared.

Several of the posts echoed sentiments shared by Mr. Hackleman in videos shared prior to his apology. Members have repeatedly stated that peaceful protesters are synonymous with violent participants and criminal activity — going as far as to suggest “Second Amendment remedies” and violence against protesters with self-defense as the justification. One members shared unfounded QAnon conspiracy theories about local protesters while others labeled them as members of antifa, an “anti-facist” political protest movement with autonomous groups that oppose facism and extreme right-wing ideologies. Members routinely mulled the idea of violent retaliation against protesters under the guise of defending themselves as antifa “domestic terrorists.”

Members have expressed outrage over residents protesting in Arroyo Grande in light of a wave of shootings in Paso Robles that injured several officers. 26-year-old suspect Mason James Lira died following a shootout with law enforcement officials on June 11 at the Salinas Riverbed. Lira is also the probable suspect in the homicide of a transient the day before. One resident, who claims to be actively monitoring protester movement, stated they were hopeful someone in the community would “put a stop to [them].”

Three members have reached to me expressing concern for their personal safety after leaving “Protect Five Cities” due to receiving harassing messages and threats. One member, who wrote to me and granted permission to share their comments under the condition of anonymity, said, “It’s shameful that [the “Protest” groups] are going way, way over the line.”

Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews.

Marketing entrepreneur and columnist from Morro Bay, California.

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