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Protesters march through Merced, speak out against Hookah Lounge arrests

UC Merced protester speaks

A fifth-year senior at UC Merced who marched with about 100 people says Thursday, July 13, 2017, why he wanted
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A fifth-year senior at UC Merced who marched with about 100 people says Thursday, July 13, 2017, why he wanted

Scores of young people gathered at UC Merced and marched through the city on Thursday afternoon protesting the arrests of five people and the use of force by Merced police over the weekend during an incident at a downtown hookah lounge.

Five people, including at least one UC Merced student, were arrested and a Merced police officer was injured early Sunday during a melee at Chandelier’s Hookah Lounge & Smoke Shop on Main Street.

Part of the incident was captured on a cellphone video that since has gone viral on the Internet. The video shows several police officers with stun weapons pointed at people, several club patrons being placed in handcuffs, and shouting between officers and the crowd. The clip also shows Officer Joseph Opinski turn and fire a non-lethal round at one man from an anti-riot weapon, which police have described as a “sage weapon.”

Officer Raymond Valadez, who has been with the department for two years, suffered “serious” facial and head injuries during the confrontation, Capt. Bimley West said. He was taken to Mercy Medical Center where he was treated and later released. He remained off duty Thursday and was recovering at home.

Protesters identified Majied Jaleel Bey, 21, who was arrested at the lounge, as the man struck by the anti-riot round fired by Opinski.

Police said two people were examined by medical staff at the scene Sunday but said they were not seriously injured and said there were no other injuries from the crowd.

Protesters march on Merced police station

Thursday’s protest began on campus at UC Merced but moved into the city later in the afternoon. Protesters gathered at Yosemite Avenue where they blocked traffic at the G Street intersection for several minutes before marching south on G Street. Protesters marched down several streets in Merced and wound up in front of the Merced Police Department on West 22nd Street.

Protesters chanted several slogans, including: “No justice, no peace. No racist police” and “We won’t stop until the charges get dropped.”

As of Thursday, no formal charges have been filed against anyone in the case.

Merced police stopped traffic to protect the protesters at several intersections during the demonstration, according to Police Chief Norm Andrade. Police put metal barricades around the police station, forcing protestors to chant from across 22nd Street.

At one point, as protesters were moving away from the middle of the intersection at Yosemite and G, a protester was seen striking the hood of an approaching car that got very close to the protesters in the intersection of the road. That incident was caught at the end of a live Facebook video shot by a Merced Sun-Star reporter.

Police said there were no reports of damage to the car.

No arrests were made in connection with the protest, police confirmed.

“It started off a little rough,” West said of the protest. “What these kids are doing, they have every right to do and we appreciate that. It’s good for them, it’s good for us — really, it’s good for everybody.”

The protest broke up around 8 p.m.

Accounts differ over who started Sunday’s violence

Police have said they entered the club on Sunday looking for Bryant Brown, a 23-year-old Merced man wanted on a $100,000 felony warrant charging him with robbery in connection with a suspected “drug deal gone bad” on May 1 in Mariposa. The Sheriff’s Office in Mariposa confirmed Brown is one of multiple suspects in the robbery case. The warrant was issued May 2, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Brown slipped away from police during the altercation.

Several people, including club patrons, have said police instigated the violence at the club Sunday, but officers have said they only used force after the club-goers got out of hand and assaulted a police officer.

UC Merced student Harace Bangah, 20, said he was at the lounge during the chaos. He said police never explained why they were in the club that night and everyone at the party was “puzzled.” He said it was a private party for adults, 18 and older, and said no alcohol was served and no drugs were present. Protesters said most of the people at the hookah lounge party were college students.

“The police looked at the room full of black kids as criminals,” Bangah told the Sun-Star.

He said he was “terrified” when an officer pointed the anti-riot, or “sage weapon,” at him.

Bangah and other protesters said a police officer punched Isa Bey in the face and that the officer threw the first punch. Isa Bey, a 22-year-old UC Merced student, was one of the five people arrested Sunday. Protesters said all five of the people arrested Sunday are college students “at various schools.”

Bangah said Isa Bey was going to help a girl who had been pushed down and that’s when the officer punched Bey in the face.

However, police say, the violence sparked when “several” people punched the officer and that police used force after the crowd got out of hand.

Another protester, Selasia De-Souza, said he heard officers use the “N-word” and the “F-word” inside the Hookah Lounge. He said the doors to the lounge were locked.

“We were trapped inside like animals,” the 21-year-old said. “I was terrified for my life.”

There was “no reason” for officers to use “excessive force” on a roomful of college students, the biological science major said.

Protesters rally around arrested students

Investigators have not said specifically who they believe may have assaulted the officer, however, Isa Bey and Nedir Bey, 20, of Oakland, were booked into the Merced County jail on suspicion of felony battery on a peace officer, according to booking records.

Both men posted bail and were released from custody later that morning.

At least one protester described Isa Bey as “an exceptional and brilliant young man” majoring in mechanical engineering and a former officer with the Black Student Union and the African Student Union who also is involved in several other prominent student-leader organizations.

Also arrested were Bay Area residents Ciasonne Olajuwon Ratto-Foster, 20, of Richmond, and Yakub Bey, 24, according to Merced police.

Ratto-Foster was booked on suspicion of misdemeanor counts of battery on a peace officer and obstructing police. He was released from custody after he was cited, according to jail records.

Yakub Bey and Majied Jaleel Bey were cited by police, officers said, but not booked into jail.

Management and business economics major Manar Harram said she knows the Bey family well, and was at the lounge the night of the melee. Clashes between police and civilians are the type of thing you see on TV, she said.

“We never expect it to be happening in the city we’re in,” she said. “Everything was very surreal to me.”

Case under review, no time frame for a possible filing decision

No formal charges have been filed against of the five people arrested Sunday.

District Attorney Larry Morse II said his office planned “a painstaking and thorough review of the case” to determine whether any of the people arrested will face criminal charges in court.

“We know there’s a great deal of interest and concern and emotion involved in this case,” Morse told the Sun-Star. “There’s no timetable for making a filing decision. The last thing anyone wants is a hurried decision. We’ll make the determination after giving all the evidence and statements the consideration they merit and after all the facts and evidence has been reviewed thoroughly.”

Morse said his chief of investigations, Pat Lunney, will work closely with investigators to “review and evaluate everything,” which is expected to include body camera footage from police, other video clips, as well as statements from dozens of witnesses and police officers.

Darryl Davis, president of the NAACP in Merced, said his group was aware of the incident and has been in contact with several UC Merced students this week. He said his group has not taken a stance on the Hookah Lounge incident and said they were waiting for more facts to be released.

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller

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