By Miriam Raftery
October 18, 2020 (La Mesa) – Art Madrid has served La Mesa for more than 44 years, including 24 years as Mayor, 10 on the City Council, and 10 on city boards and commissions. Since 2014, when Mark Arapostathis won the mayoral race, the customarily outspoken Madrid has stayed out of city issues—until now.
“I’ve never said anything since I left office, maybe one comment,” Madrid told ECM in a phone call this week. But after the May 30 racial justice protest and riot, controversies over housing for the homeless and more, he’s decided to speak out. “If you look at the effectiveness of the Council in taking a leadership role, it’s absent,” he said. Madrid believes that assessing what happened on May 30 amounts to “dealing with the symptom, not the cause” of racial tensions in the city.
Madrid , who is Hispanic, knows first-hand what it’s like to be a target of a racial hate crime.
“For a solid year when I was mayor, I was stalked by the skinheads. They wound up leaving a hand grenade on my doorstep,” he recalled. “I testified before the D.A. and other people; he was arrested with four friends who were instigators and they all went to prison.”
Alex Curtis, a local student and avowed white supremacist, ultimately pled guilty in 2001 to harassing Madrid and then-Congressman Bob Filner as well as defacing local synagogues with racist graffiti.
The former mayor says the protest and destruction of May 30 had their roots in a 2018 incident at Helix High School in which a Black female student was slammed to the ground by a La Mesa Police school resource officer. That sparked “the public saying we don’t have confidence in the police department,” said Madrid. “There should not have been a need to hire a consultant when the Council as a whole should have had a press conference saying `We’re not condoning that and we’re going to ask police to be more sensitive.”
ECM pointed out to Madrid that the outside investigation funded by the city was intended to include actions leading up to the incident caught on video, but that when the consultant announced to the City Council that the report was concluded, the Mayor and Council were stunned to learn that state law prohibited them from viewing the report, which would be turned over only to the Chief of Police. “”How dare you spend good money on results and say `We can’t give it to you?” Madrid opined. “I would have said [to the consultant], `we can’t pay you. I’m your client, not the police department.”
The stop of Amaurie Johnson, a Black man, near a trolley station in La Mesa kindled the flames of racial tensions. The stop occurred shortly after the brutal killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer now facing a murder charge. The trolley stop incident came after protests rocked the nation–and just two days before the now infamous La Mesa protest and riot. A La Mesa Police officer who stopped Johnson and later accused him of assaulting the officer, but body cam footage failed to back the officer’s story and instead, showed the officer grabbing Johnson’s shirt and pushing him into a seated position as Johnson loudly objected.
Madrid suggests the stop was racial profiling, with “police walking up and saying what are you doing here at the trolley, just because he is Black….immediately there was an allegation, what are you doing here, smoking marijuana? That by itself is dehumanizing.” (No smoking items were found in a subsequent search of Johnson.) He wanted city leaders to proactively say of that incident, ”We’re investigating it and we’ll make sure it never happens again. That’s not La Mesa,” said Madrid. “The trigger for the [May 30] incident was when Johnson’s civil rights were violated and two days after that, all hell broke loose. They should have called for total preparation immediately.”
He also levels criticism at the city’s lack of adequate planning and preparation for possible looting or rioting after the peaceful protest “parade” on May 30, given what had happened across the nation and the Amaurie Johnson incident two days earlier which made La Mesa a target of those protesting racial injustice. A city press conference became “the most flawed press conference” after civic leaders failed to turn off the microphone, allowing Johnson and activists to stage their own impromptu press conference, further inflaming tensions.
When protesters first gathered outside the LMPD station on May 30 at 1 p.m., no one came out to meet them, with police barricaded inside. Madrid says after the Helix incident, parents and teachers similarly marched to the police station and wanted to meet with Chief Walt Vasquez, but that police locked the doors out of fear. “When you have the chief refusing to meet with the public, that sets the tone.”
Madrid notes that protesters have “every right to First Amendment rights.” He believes there were “two compelling groups, protesters and then rioters who came right after sunset or after dark.” He believes the rioting and looting were “totally orchestrated” and included plans to divert police with vehicles set on fire outside city hall while looters fanned out in the village and at Grossmont Center.
He believes city leaders should have foreseen the potential for violence, since looting and rioting had occurred in other cities in recent days. “They should have had the foresight to see that we’re going to be needed some more resources,” Madrid says, noting that no other local cities sent mutual aid, only the Sheriff’s department; an ECM public records request found no documentation of any mutual aid requests by La Mesa leaders, other than a late-night request for the National Guard, which was declined.
“I consider that a failure of leadership at every level,” said Madrid. ”The Mayor is the chief elected official. He needs to have foresight and backbone to ask for assistance if something is taking place.”
In a June 9 interview with ECM, Mayor Arapostathis discussed the matter of mutual aid.
Mayor Arapostathis told ECM that on May 30, “I watched the protest, I live close by and I was watching it from home, I wasn’t concerned. It was peaceful.” But after he saw people throwing objects and “different groups, different dynamics going on, that’s when I became concerned like everyone else, like the rest of the Council…When an advisory came out to avoid the area, there were fires started and I was devastated, that it was starting to devolve into something like that.”
ECM then asked the current Mayor about communications with police and efforts to reach out to other agencies.
Mayor Arapostathis stated, “We don’t make command decisions. We don’t order the police. We can’t give them suggestions. They are an independent agency…the city manager was our contact and always is, that’s the way the city manager form of government works.,,The City Manager was keeping us informed of what was going.”
He indicated that after being informed that all agencies contacted had responded and no more resources would be coming to La Mesa (other than the Sheriff and CHP) Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, mother of La Mesa Councilwoman Akilah Weber, “asked me what more could be done, and I said `we need help.’ The Mayor of La Mesa doesn’t have the power to ask for the National Guard or other agencies…it has to come from the Governor.” He said he was not aware of whether Governor Gavin Newsom was reached that night, however the National Guard did not come to La Mesa until later in the week after continuing civil unrest concerns.
Former Mayor Madrid said trying to “blame it on the City Manager” amounted to the Mayor “trying to get out of his responsibility….The Council sets policy and the City Manager implements it.” He also faulted the Council for not convening a meeting until after 1 a.m. to announce a 1:30 a.m. curfew. “The Council should have said `Hey, we need to have a meeting, not pass the buck and say the City Manager didn’t tell us.”
What else might he have done differently?
Madrid said during emergency situations, “all vacations and leave are cancelled” for police to assure that the city would be protected. He faults police for staying at the police station and not answering emergency calls. “When people started going into the village, pilfering and looting, a lot of people called for help and nobody answered. A lot of people said they didn’t see any officers until 3 a.m….The reputation of a good department was tarnished because there was no preplanning.”
He suggested that just as La Mesa and other cities hold “tabletop” planning and drills annually to be prepared for earthquakes, mass school shootings and other emergencies, so should drills be held for addressing civil unrest. He recalled that after school shootings elsewhere, “We were making sure we knew every entrance and exit to every school, and how to protect the water district, our water supply at Lake Murray,” among other things.
He also faulted the city for not having adequate notification to the public during the civil unrest and rioting, but said communication issues started earlier. “People elect the Council to be their representatives and place blind trust in them, but lose faith when they call the office and nobody returns calls. I hear that on an ongoing basis. There is a need to be open, and when incidents occur, there will be trust.”
He also faulted the City Manager, Greg Humora, for not informing the City Council that the Police Chief had announced his resignation/retirement until the middle of a public virtual meeting on the May 30 policing issues. “It’s the responsibility of the City Manager to communicate,” Madrid said. If he’s covering serious things like the police chief resigning, what else is he covering up?”
Madrid acknowledges that if he’d been Mayor on May 30, even if all of the steps he suggests were taken, the mayhem might not have been totally prevented, but he believes damage would have been minimized.
“If we could not have avoided it, the impact would have been less and we’d have burned buildings still standing,” Madrid claims. “Preparation is everything.”
He also voiced his views on defender groups that arose after the riot to protect businesses, but which have since drawn criticism for patrolling streets with knives and other weapons, with some shouting racial taunts and engaging in violent altercations.
“The DEC [Defend East County] is not coming to protect us. They are coming to disturb, in my opinion,” Madrid stated.
He suggested the police chief should have banned weapons citywide during pre-announced protests; the city might also have required permits for protests and counterprotest gatherings. If Madrid had his way, “the Police Chief would be in charge and say it's unacceptable to be walking around with tasers and long knives. You cannot intimidate a regular, law abiding citizen, or toting guns.”
While he believes the Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear arms, he said, “The number one responsibility of government is public safety – to protect the citizens….There’s a time to reassess rules” from the past to address civil unrest “without violating rights” of protesters or others.
Madrid’s tenure was not without controversies at times over his irascible and outspoken leaderships. But he notes with pride that his own 24 years as Mayor were unblemished by any such violent civil unrest. Now he’s troubled by the recent incidents leaving a blemish on the city’s image.
“We’re 108 years right now. We’ve always had a reputation as an ideal place to live and raise a family,” notes Madrid, who presided over the city’s centennial celebration, “All of a sudden, that’s been damaged because of the inaction of policy makers.”
Despite whatever failings occurred in La Mesa, Madrid, a long-time Republican, also laid blame for escalating racial tensions nationally squarely on President Donald Trump.
“Right now the country is so divided,” he observed. “The bias and the bigotry is being promoted by the President…The reality is this country has always been bigoted, whether against the Irish, Italians, Jews, or people from South and Central America. Collectively, immigrants’ input is what makes America great.” He faults Trump for saying Mexicans are rapists and showing no empathy to concerns of African-Americans over police use of force. “The economy of California is going down the tubes because farm workers are not there, crops are being ploughed under,” he says of anti-immigrant policies that have sharply reduced immigration. “When you need them, they’re great people…After this election, it’s going to take a couple of years to get us back to some degree of openness and civility, once there is a change of administrations.”
He also voiced concerns that La Mesa may not be prepared for the prospect of people going to the polls to protect or intimidate people,” adding, “the attempted kidnapping of the Governor of Michigan [by an armed militia group] should be a wakeup call.”
Madrid notes that La Mesa is ethnically diverse, with around 11 to 15% Hispanic residents, 5-7% Black, and around 1% Asian-Pacific islanders, though the majority is still white. He urges all residents, “Don’t judge anybody. Everybody is an immigrant or refugee, whether third or fifteenth generation, unless you are First Americans.”
The outspoken former Mayor also weighed in on the upcoming La Mesa City Council elections. Madrid formerly backed Colin Parent in the last Council election, but now criticized Parent for “colluding with special interests” to push forward a homeless shelter at the Holiday Inn after taking donations from the developer.
There are two seats open in this election. Madrid has endorsed Jack Shu. “I think he brings temperament, experience, and he is open to protecting virtually everybody,” said Madrid, adding that Shu has been targeted by racial slurs during his campaign. “He would add a vision and respect for individuals citywide.”
Asked who among the current Councilmembers he believes might have the qualities needed to be La Mesa’s future Mayor, Madrid names Dr. Akilah Weber. “Dr. Weber is the only one who has vision and asks the right questions. She is the one I respect to have the vision to be a hell of a good mayor.”
Madrid notes that Dr. Weber is the daughter of Assemblywoman Shirly Weber. “Shirley—nobody intimidates her,” Madrid said. “She’s the product of sharecropper families who saw the very worst scenario, and that DNA is in Akilah’s system.”
Madrid does see one good thing that arose out of the ashes of the burned buildings and destruction that ravaged La Mesa.
He praised residents for how they reacted the morning after the riot – actions that he said showed “the character of La Mesans. They said, `Wait, this is not La Mesa. We’re going to come out and help clean up and provide businesses with help to rebuild.”
Some 600 people turned out for the cleanup; fundraising efforts raised over a quarter of a million dollars to assist businesses looted or vandalized.
But Madrid observed pointedly, “That leadership came from the citizens spontaneously – it didn’t come from the city.”
While this may be the first time Art Madrid has spoken out critically since leaving public office, it likely won’t be his last.
Asked about the autobiographical tell-all book he promised to write after retiring, Madrid replied slyly, “I’ve told my heirs not to publish it until I’m gone.”