Updated to include comments from Councilmember Laura Lothian.
By Miriam Raftery
December 12, 2021 (La Mesa) – On May 30th last year, racial justice protests in La Mesa were fueled in part by a viral video of a white police officer’s treatment of a young black man, Amaurie Johnson, at a trolley stop as well as by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a Minneapolis police officer.
Johnson was initially charged with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, but charges were dropped after police body camera footage and a viral video failed to substantiate the officer’s allegation. Video showed the Officer Matt Dages grabbing Johnson’s shirt and pushing him into a seated position and Johnson putting up a hand in response, briefly brushing his fingers against the officer.
Protests turned violent after dark, including the burning down of two banks and a historic building, actions that terrorized many La Mesa residents.
Dages was fired by the city and criminally charged with falsifying a police report; charges against Johnson were dropped.
But now a jury has found OfficerDages not guilty. In addition, Ricky Bernard Cooper, who pleaded guilty to lighting papers on fire inside Chase Bank which burned to the ground as well as to looting businesses, was sentenced to probation after serving just 100 days in jail.
Arsonist’s sentence ignites controversy
After Cooper’s sentence, local residents shared reactions on social media and some worried that the light sentence sent the wrong signal to future would-be rioters.
Bobbie Terrie posted on Facebook’s La Mesa Happenings Forum, “I can’t believe this sentence. Where has justice gone?”
Susan Brinchman wrote, “Green light for others to do the same.”
But Dan Tee took a different view, calling the verdict “not really surprising. There wasn’t enough evidence he started the fire that actually burned the bank down, and he agreed to a plea deal with the prosecutor. The co-defendant is still facing charges.”
Cooper did, however, face repercussions after getting out of jail. On his Facebook page, he stated, “So I just got terminated from my job for people calling in and threatening to smash windows and protest outside…” He later posted that he has found another job, but will not be posting the location. In a subsequent post, he observed, “Everything happens for a reason…. Some things fall apart so better things can fall together. It all depends how you look at it, a negative mindset will never give you a positive life.”
East County Magazine e-mailed La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis, Councilmembers Jack Shu and Laura Lothian to request comments on the Cooper sentencing. The mayor did not respond.
Shu stated, “I know the community was deeply hurt by the burning of buildings and all the other damage which took place last year…We, including myself, want some kind of payback to make up for the pain. Wanting every person who took part in the criminal actions of that night get arrested and having them serve long prison sentences does cross my mind from time to time. But I know it will not likely happen to many of the people responsible and in the end, it will not undo the damage done to our city. We need to work on how we can prevent such hateful, violent and criminal behavior in our community and society.”
Councilmember Lothian sent this response: "On May 30th, 2020, La Mesa lost Chase Bank, Union Bank, and the historic Randall Lamb Building to rioters, looters, and arsonists. Disturbingly, we lost more than three buildings that day; we lost a sense of security all of us took for granted. Adding fuel to the fire, so to speak, a 34-year-old man, Ricky Cooper, pleaded guilty to arson and burglary charges and was sentenced to probation. This reckless leniency being applied to criminals in cities all over our country coupled with the not-so-subtle war on cops is the reason crime is through the roof. Hundreds of La Mesans expressed to me their dismay and disquiet at this sentence that can't even be called a slap on the wrist. I hope this lapse in responsible judgment from the DA's office does not make La Mesa vulnerable to future attacks."
Officer Dages’ acquittal raises equity concerns
Officer Dages was fired by the city of La Mesa after the incident with Johnson, which occurred just days after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis sparked racial justice protests against police nationwide and two days before the La Mesa protest and riot. A video showed Dages pushing Johnson into a sitting position, though the officer claimed Johnson assaulted him. Dages also accused Johnson of smoking and being in an area for trolley officers only, points disputed by the prosecution and not substantiated by body cam footage from multiple officers at the scene.
After the jury announced its not guilty verdict, Tasha Williamson, an organizer of the May 30 La Mesa protest, voiced disgust but not surprise. “Matt Dages found not guilty! It was expected because he had a jury of his peers,” she wrote on her Facebook page, adding that only one of the 12 jurors was a person of color.
Human rights activist Mark Lane, on the La Mesa Happenings forum, called it a “horrible verdict.”
But some saw things differently. Antonina Gagliano posted on Facebook, “This is not the result of a broken criminal justice system or `white privilege.’ Matt was found not guilty because he is a police officer who did his job and acted lawfully…his verdict is a huge win for Matt and all law enforcement in America. Furthermore, this verdict is a rejection of the anti-police movement and a step in the right direction.”
Glenn Grant observed wryly, “Guy who burned down bank got two years’ probation. Officer has already been punished enough, and now is acquitted.”
District Attorney Summer Stephan issued this statement on Dages’ exoneration. "While I respect the jury's verdict, I remain proud that my team courageously fought for justice without prejudice against or favor towards anyone.”
Civil courts may yet weigh in on the Dages-Johnson altercation, since both Dages and Johnson have filed lawsuits against the city of La Mesa. Dages’ suit claims he was wrongfully terminated, while Johnson’s alleges police misconduct.