Drivers held hostage in SLO were the victims, not the protesters

Tianna Arata standing on a highway barrier


Regarding the Feb. 19 Tribune editorial, “Video shows irate driver hitting SLO protesters,” but is it the driver who’s the victim?”

The Tribune’s editorial is about the events of last July when a group of Black Lives Matter protesters decided it would be a good idea to take their demonstration off the streets of SLO and onto Highway 101 and block traffic in both directions.

First, a little background. There had been several prior demonstrations in downtown SLO and of course anyone who followed the news at the time knew of the multiple protests across America. Many were peaceful. Many were violent. The marches in SLO were peaceful for the most part up to July aside from a June 1 demonstration when the police used tear gas to break up the crowd.

To my knowledge, subsequent protests, several of which I saw personally, had the sanction of the city’s cops who would ride ahead of the marchers, close off side streets to through traffic, await till the marchers went by and then open up the roads. I’ve seen it many times at other demonstrations in our downtown, both as a bystander and a participant over the years. It all works smoothly when there are no surprises. No one gets hurt; the inconveniences are small.

But then something different occurred on July 21. The marchers, on their own, without consulting the city cops or the CHP, headed to a highway 101 onramp, poured out onto the freeway and completely blocked traffic in both directions.

Is this still a peaceful march? I guess it would depend on one’s definition of “peaceful.” I say no.

Now, I imagine myself in my car, with my family inside, exiting onto the freeway and into the hands and whims of the protesters. What do I think and what would I do in those circumstances?

First, I note that no one is handing out any leaflets. Obviously, they’re not interested in engagement, discussion nor the exchange of views. But they have lots of signs. From my point of view, they are here to accomplish one thing: to stop me from proceeding on with my day as planned. The people who surround me now control the actions of myself and my family for some indeterminate time.

Am I happy to be captured by these people? No. Am I irate? Yes, and I have every justification to see these events similarly to the driver of the BMW that forced a protester, Sam Grocott, to move aside.

What we have here is a tension between “rights.” The driver’s rights verses Mr. Grocott’s and the other demonstrator’s rights.

Mr. Grocott has the Constitutional right to protest, undeniably. But that right also has limitations in law. No one can or should claim that Mr. Grocott cannot protest peacefully in support of BLM. Indeed, let’s remember, there were several prior marches in the city that largely went off without significant problems. They knew how to protest legally and without detrimental impact on the community.

But, on this day, they decided to ignore the past protocols agreed in discussion with the SLO cops and head out to the freeway to, with intent, stop all traffic on Highway 101.

In my view, that they cannot legally and should not, morally, be able to do.

There’s an old adage that rattles around in my head from time to time. “All dysfunctional behavior that is tolerated, is encouraged” and this is an excellent example.

We, as a society, cannot nor should not allow groups, any groups, no matter how noble they think is their cause, to be able to capture citizens and hold them against their will. This is after all, kidnapping, albeit short term. There are no excuses nor exceptions I can think of.

So, back to the rights of the driver of the van in question. Does a kidnap victim have the right to escape their capture along with their family and positions intact? I say yes, they do. They have every right. The driver has no idea as to how long they will be held captive nor does he know if they will suffer damage to their car or person.

Note they did discover that damage was willingly inflicted by another protester when he hurled his skateboard into the van’s rear window, shattering the window. The van driver’s crime- attempting to break capture.

If you disagree with me, please tell me the limiting factor. Why does the driver not have the right, the agency, to extract himself from a situation where they have been captured against their will?

To understand this principle, imagine you are exiting your home and you find me standing in the middle of your driveway and I say to you “you can’t leave, at least for now, with your car. You can leave it and walk away but you can’t take your family and leave in your car.” Are you OK with that? Do you think that should be allowed? Do you, should you, have the right to get to drive right up to me and continue to drive?  Shove me out of the way? I can voluntarily latch on to your car’s hood and go for a ride but I expect my good sense will kick in shortly and I’ll move aside.

Have I somehow wronged you? Or have you wronged me?

We have here the same circumstance of competing rights. In the case where I am blocking your exit from your driveway, I am probably claiming that my reason, whatever it may be, for blocking your exit is sufficient to negate your right to freely move about in society.

You would perhaps claim I do not have the right to infringe on your right of free movement and you may say that you can exercise agency to reclaim that right I am attempting to take away.

In this imaginary instance, I assert that your rights trump my rights regardless of the reason of my protest.

And in the case of the unnamed driver of the van and Mr. Grocott, in my book the van’s driver’s right to extract himself and his family from the grip of the demonstrators supersedes any claimed rights lost by Mr. Grocott.

On July 21, when the BLM protesters went onto the highway, they gave up many of the civil rights they had just minutes earlier. That’s what happens when you commit a crime.

The driver of the van, especially as the protector of his family, did not lose any rights of action and he, in my view, exercised his rights in a responsible manor regardless of his verbal outrage. He took such action as needed to extract himself and his family from the situation.

Frankly, the only thing that surprises me is there weren’t more drivers exercising those rights as well.

Gordon Mullin is a San Luis Obispo High School graduate who has lived in SLO for 40 years.