A judge on Wednesday granted a restraining order to the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, protecting him against a prominent member of Black Lives Matter L.A. alleged to have engaged in a pattern of stalking and violent threats.
The city sought the order protecting commission president Matt Johnson from activist Trevor Gerard, identified in court proceedings by his given name of Trevor Ferguson, who is accused of stalking Johnson at his home in Sherman Oaks and at the entertainment law firm where he works in Century City.
Nana Gyamfi, the attorney representing Gerard, said the decision set a troubling precedent, signaling the start of a gradual impingement on the free-speech rights of activists.
For two hours all seats were occupied in the small courtroom, with an audience that included supporters for Gerard and a pair of LAPD officers in suits, who apparently were there providing security for Johnson.
Arguments from the two sides hinged on whether Gerard’s conduct during two protest demonstrations targeting Johnson at his private residence, and the law firm where he works, constituted legally protected speech or threats intended to frighten the commissioner or his family.
“We’re dealing with a very thin line here, and the question is was it overstepped,” said Superior Court Judge Carol Boas Goodwin. The line, the judge said, was one delineating a protester's rights versus fear directed at the commissioner.
To be granted the restraining order, the city had to show Gerard made threats against Johnson combined with actions that could have reasonably caused the commission president to fear for his safety — what is known as cumulative effect.
The court heard testimony from Johnson and from attorney Paul Shapiro, a partner at the entertainment law firm where Johnson works, who testified he encountered Gerard in the law office after the activist rode the elevator up from a protest in the lobby.
Johnson told the court that Gerard frequently attends commission meetings and speaks during the public comment time, making negative comments about the police department and about Johnson’s oversight of the department. “He will often use derogatory and foul language relating to me,” Johnson said. "Many times, when I look out into the audience and catch his eye, he will mouth comments," which Johnson alleges have included physical threats.
At prompting from the judge, Johnson enumerated the alleged physical threats as “I’ll fucking kill you,” “I’ll whip your ass” and “bitch-ass houseboy.”
The judge at one point had the police commission president mouth the alleged threatening words to her on the bench. She said she wasn't able to read his lips. “Maybe you should ask him to mouth them,” Johnson replied, indicating to Gerard.
The commission is charged with overseeing the LAPD, setting policy and determining whether police use of force was justified. Its meetings are held at LAPD headquarters and upward of 15 officers in uniform attend. Johnson never ordered police to remove Gerard from the room, he said, because it would have caused an undue disruption and delayed commission business.
A fellow L.A. police commissioner, Cynthia McClain-Hill, was subpoenaed in the case and submitted written testimony that she never saw Gerard mouth threats at Johnson. Gerard likewise denied issuing threats of any kind, and said his comments were political speech critical of the commission, which he referred to in court as a “rubber-stamp body for extreme violence in the community.”
Judge Boas Goodwin reviewed transcripts of Gerard's comments at meetings, introduced as evidence by Johnson's lawyer, deputy city attorney Hugo Rossitter. These included a reference to Johnson’s children deemed “gratuitous” in the court filing for the restraining order. The judge didn't agree, saying that given proper context the statements were understandable as political commentary.
One statement of Gerard's came from the Nov. 1 board meeting: “Matt Johnson has four children, one of whom I understand is a boy,” he said. “God forbid, Matt Johnson, that you ever have to suffer at the hands of men like [LAPD Police Chief] Charlie Beck. ... God forbid you have to sit in this audience and suffer because your boy was just another nigger in the crosshairs.”
Judge Boas Goodwin said that the statement “doesn’t appear to be a threat. He was making a point regarding violence and how black men are dealt with.”
In a separate statement, Gerard concluded his comments to the board by stating, “When 4 million people realize how fucked up y’all are, y’all will not be able to stop that tide. And that’s coming. And it’s coming for all of you.”
The judge dismissed the relevance of the statement to a restraining order: "It doesn’t say coming for you, it says coming for all of you," she said.
Of greater concern to the judge, however, was the testimony of Paul Shapiro, a co-managing partner at the entertainment law firm where Johnson works.
Shapiro told of the morning of Dec. 17 when a group of about 20 protesters entered the lobby of the office tower where the firm is located. Shapiro described an encounter with Gerard alone on a restricted floor of the office. Gerard, he says, was walking around the floor, carrying a protest flier and asking, "Where is Matt Johnson?"
Johnson was not present at the time.
“[Gerard] was emphatic about the fact that we would not remain protected in this building on the floor reserved for members of the firm," Shapiro said, "explaining that my affiliation to Mr. Johnson and the law firm did not absolve me from complicity.”
Shapiro says he was "terrified" and was able to convince Gerard to leave, accompanying him on an elevator ride down to the lobby, where the large deployment of LAPD officers restored a "tremendous sense of calm." Eventually, the protesters agreed to remove the demonstration to the sidewalk. No arrests were made.
In an interview with L.A. Weekly after the hearing, Gerard said Shapiro "perjured" himself on the witness stand in his account of that morning.
Nevertheless, the judge told Gerard he was trespassing that day and that his actions inside the law firm were not free speech but rather “an act of intimidation, in my view.” She asked Gerard if it occurred to him at the time he went up in the elevator that he might be crossing a line. "I don’t know how to answer that," he said. "It was a protest.”
Gyandi argued that protesters around the country go to private homes to demonstrate, and that the president of the police commission is a logical target for those struggling for greater police accountability in L.A.
The protesters had gone to the office to confront Johnson in part over claims he restricts public comment at meetings and on occasion ordered speakers physically removed from the room by police.
The court also heard from Hamid Khan, a community activist who was present at the demonstration in the lobby. Khan said that the decision to single out Johnson for protest was political, not personal, and that there were other activists attempting to go up in the elevators, in addition to Gerard.
“It was a collective decision by people who go to police commission meetings,” Khan said of the decision to protest inside the law firm.
At a separate demonstration the following day, on Dec. 18, protesters targeted Johnson's private residence. A group of about 14 approached the gated house on the sidewalk. Gerard says the main purpose of the action was to hand out fliers against Johnson (the flier, admitted as evidence at the hearing, accuses the police commissioner of “complicity with state-sanctioned murder”).
As many as 25 plainclothes LAPD officers met the protesters in front of Johnson's home, Gerard said in court. He says he was arrested and taken into custody after joking with an officer that he was going to ring the doorbell to Johnson’s home. He did not end up setting foot on the property, and was later released without charge. Johnson was not on the property at the time, but his wife and four children were at home.
Judge Boas Goodwin ruled that Gerard’s participation in the two protests — at Johnson’s place of work and his private home, in combination with the public reference made to Johnson’s children — were grounds for granting the restraining order.
The order calls for Gerard to avoid Johnson's home and the law firm where he works, as well as his children's school. It does not prevent Gerard from attending public meetings of the commission, and he may still make public comments.
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Johnson made a statement to reporters after the hearing. "The First Amendment is a pillar of our democracy. The right to protest has led to true gains for people that look like me and Mr. Ferguson, and that’s something I deeply respect. But there is a line. And that line for me is when you threaten the safety of my family."
Gyamfi said she plans to appeal the judge's decision.
“Matt Johnson showed today he is actually a houseboy,” Gyamfi told reporters. “It is ridiculous that he used a process that people use to protect themselves from actual violence — be it domestic violence or violence at the hands of people who intend to do harm — to protect himself from what amounts to embarrassment and humiliation.”
Gerard said, “What’s being talked about is what is acceptable protest. And I don’t believe the judge is in any position to make that call.”