Tensions Rise Between Protesters, So-Called ‘Defenders' Outside Santee Target

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Protesters who gathered in Santee to fight racial injustice on Sunday said they were confronted by a group of people claiming they were defending a Target store.

Hundreds of demonstrators in Santee called for police reform and racial equality following the killing of George Floyd in police custody, joining the calls of dozens of other protests in San Diego County this week.

As the afternoon progressed, the group, signs in hand and chanting loudly, marched to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department Santee Station where they took a moment of silence for Floyd.

But the peaceful protests were followed with a tense moment as demonstrators returned to their cars parked in a Target lot.

NBC 7's Niala Charles is live in Santee walking with protesters.

As some protesters returned to their cars at a nearby Target, they said self-described "defenders" reportedly confronted them. A group had been posted outside the business, in their words, protecting it from looters.

One demonstrator told NBC 7 the group mocked them as they walked by, some allegedly hurling racial slurs.

Video shared with NBC 7 showed the moments after SDSO was called. About a couple dozen deputies ordered the crowd to disperse and stood, batons in hand, in a line between the two groups, facing demonstrators.

Demonstrators can be heard shouting at the "defenders," who stood arms folded, some on benches, staring at the small crowd in the parking lot.

The demonstrators said they believed that some of the so-called "defenders" were members of White Supremacy groups, and they were upset that it appeared as if the deputies were siding with the "defenders."

"For the police, I have one thing to say to you guys. You guys can't push out the minorities but keep the people inside behind your guys' line. That is unfair. So if you want these people to leave make sure you have those people leave to cause that's going to be racial bias," one man with a megaphone said to cheers from demonstrators.

A short while later, demonstrators dispersed to head to another protest in Hillcrest, according to the video.

The incident was a stark contrast to a day of peaceful protests in Santee. At least two different protests were organized in the small suburban city east of San Diego.

Click here to view photos of protests from around San Diego County.

In one, a group of about 50 protesters was seen on the corner of West Hills Parkway and Mast Boulevard holding signs in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompting an echo of honking horns as cars drove by.

SkyRanger 7 was over the crowd as several deputy cars were seen nearby. At one point the group was seen dancing the Cupid Shuffle.

By 2:20 p.m., the protesters had moved towards Mast Boulevard, spilling into the streets.

"We're here today to give a voice to black people and the oppression of black people, and march for George Floyd," Tyree Collins of La Mesa said.

"Watching that video of George Floyd was another reminder that guy was unassuming like me, like you, like a lot of people here," local Renard Bell said. "If we don't speak out, it will just continue to happen."

Organizers said the city was chosen because of recent incidents of racism.

"We are known for having people that aren't as accepting," said Santee resident Tiffany Sundberg. "Even though there's the history of that, it's not like that anymore. There's small pockets of it, but if we come together as a community then we can show everyone in San Diego and the world that we're not this racist community that people think we are."

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said deputies were not called to the store Saturday, but detectives were looking into the incident to pursue any appropriate criminal charges. NBC 7's Artie Ojeda has more.

In May, a man was seen at a Santee supermarket using a Ku Klux Klan hood as a facial covering amid the coronavirus pandemic, which drew outrage from local leaders and civil rights organizations. After an investigation, SDSO said there was not enough evidence to charge the man.

Days later, photos surfaced of another shopper in Santee wearing a face mask with a swastika. SDSO was called and one photo shows a deputy in a conversation with the man. The agency said they asked the man to remove his mask and he complied.

The man defended his actions to NBC 7 saying "it was 100 percent intended to be a peaceful protest; the only Nazi thing was trying to say, is the governor is acting like one, up on his podium, gloating his power and taunting his power."

It was the second display of racist headwear at a Santee grocery store in less than a week.

Santee resident Alex Beckom, a black woman, said she had an incident with a group similar to the "defenders" on the weekend of May 31. The group claimed to be protecting a CVS Pharmacy on Mission Gorge Road from potential looting.

Beckom said she was driving through the parking lot with friends, coming from a nearby protest, when the group began directing slurs toward them and accusing them of trying to loot the store.

"We were in a car, nothing was happening. We were driving through the CVS. We had a Black Lives Matter sign that was maybe something that might have ticked them off, and one of them said, ‘You have a lot of nerve driving through here with this,'" Beckom said.

Then, one of the "defenders" swiped their sign and the confrontation escalated.

“When we tried to get our sign back, they kept trying to, like, attack the car and then they started swarming us. I was recording and one of them reached into the car and grabbed my phone, and when I tried to get out of the car another one pulled a knife on me and said, 'Get the F back in the car,'" she said.

One of the largest demonstrations in San Diego County was held in downtown and ended in Hillcrest with protesters taking a knee.

Despite her screams, Beckom said no one stepped in to help.

The actions of the group weren't surprising to Beckom, who said she's lived through similar racist experiences in the city since she was 5 years old.

"It’s something that I’ve seen and dealt with my whole life here," she said. "I’ve actually never even had a bad experience with police officers here, it’s always been the people in Santee, unfortunately, so these kind of actions aren’t surprising at all.”

As for Santee's reputation, Beckom said she sees less overt displays of racism but it hasn't disappeared.

"Back in the day, people were more actively racist. People would shout that N-word at me as I walked down the street. But nowadays it’s more passive racism and it’s very small."

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