LA MESA COUNCIL VOTES FOR INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION OF PROTEST AND RIOT RESPONSES; HEARS HEATED COMMENTS FROM PUBLIC

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By Briana Gomez

Photo by Paul Kruze: Officers guarding City Hall, where the City Clerk's office was set afire during the riot  on May 30

The City of La Mesa held a heated livestream city council meeting Tuesday with council members socially distanced via zoom,  the first public meeting since the May 30 riots that followed protests for black lives.

The Council unanimously voted to have an outside investigator review police, fire department and other city agencies’ actions during the protest and rioting that ended with multiple businesses looted, vehicles burned, two banks and a historic building burned down.  

Council members reviewed their agenda before public comments, most of which criticized the La Mesa Police Department for its recent treatment of the black community, perceived mismanagement of what began as a peaceful protest, and for not preventing the city from burning down during riots that ensued.

Early in the meeting, Councilmember Akilah Weber, M.D., announced that radio personalities Gina the Latina and Frankie V. from channel FM 93.3 would be coming to La Mesa on Saturday around 11 am to shop and post on social media. The personalities are partnering with LED Media Truck who agreed to donate free advertising to local businesses on Saturday for four hours. This event aims to help local businesses which were affected by riots and looting. If your business is interested in free advertisement Saturday, email christophermartinez@iheartmedia.com

There were approximately 56 public comments, mostly pertaining to the police handling of the recent May 30 protest, where protesters were tear-gassed and shot with beanbags and pepper spray.  Although the protest was characterized as peaceful and most protesters were unarmed,  videos and media reports indicate some protesters had thrown rocks and bottles at police. According to a time line released by the city, two Molotov cocktails (bottle bombs) had also been hurled at the police station.

These comments were read live for the public to hear.

A comment from resident Caitlyn Jenkins said the San Diego City Council ignored community petitions and increased the police budget.  Jenkins voiced astonishment at what she viewed as a large sized police budget for  LMPD. “This tells me that the La Mesa City Council is not interested in the health and well-being of its citizens,” added Jenkins ”…They deployed tear gas when our city is in the midst of a pandemic that affects the respiratory system.”

Ryan Tong also spoke of the budget. “This is an immoral budget that perpetrates racial and economic inequalities in our city. I am asking the city to reallocate police funding to invest in housing, healthcare, food, good jobs, education, free public transit, and resources for small businesses and low-income people.” He added, “As an Iraqi war veteran I did not fight for the rights of this country to live in a city where the police department violates peoples’ rights under the guise of public safety.”

Resident David Taylor called on the city to “divert funds from their [police] department to social services.”

Kristen Tung, like many other commenters who wrote to the council, cited the 39 percent budget allocation toward law enforcement and suggested it be reduced and used toward housing, healthcare, and small business resources. Tung said she was calling on the State Department of Justice to investigate the actions of the La Mesa police officer who shot Leslia Furcron, a great-grandmother, college student, and La Mesa resident. She was struck between the eyes with what police say was a beanbag. Department policy requires that if such  a weapon is deployed, it should only be aimed at the torso, never above the waist.

Furcron spoke publicly Wednesday for the first time since being released from the hospital. Her attorney told press that she lost sight in her left eye.

La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez has refused to release the name of the officer who shot Furcron, prompting filings of a Freedom of Information Act request and the upheaval of many La Mesa residents who demand justice for Furcron.  The LMPD timeline claims Furcron had thrown an object at police, but her lawyer claims video shows otherwise.

The only resident in disagreement of defunding law enforcement was Bodan Heineken.

“These ideas come from extreme Marxist groups,” Heineken said. He agreed with disciplining officers but not with defunding police. “Let’s be rational, logical, and think things through before we defund our police department.”

Other residents, such as Alicia Aguayo who was raised and lives in La Mesa, spoke out in fear.

“I feel unsafe knowing that there are officers in the La Mesa police department who have a known history of using excessive force and even shooting peaceful protesters in the face,” said Aguayo.

Other residents shared Aguayo’s passionate remarks.

 “…These actions are a symptom of a much larger disease plaguing the US…I am demanding accountability from the LMPD and City Council,” said Theresa Falin, a lifelong La Mesa resident. “LMPD Officer Degas is a lying racist hothead who needs to be fired as well. We have all seen the footage,” Falin said.

Falin was referring to the incident between Officer Dages and a young La Mesa man, Amaurie Johnson, which led in part to the May 30 protest that turned into riots. Johnson was stopped near a La  Mesa trolley station in what some have characterized as racial profiling. He was arrested for assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest, but charges were dropped after body cam footage failed to support the officer’s version of the incident. Many citizens felt that the bodycam footage that was released was altered to protect Dages – there was 30 seconds of silence during the beginning of the video, leaving many to wonder what really occurred. (It is standard practice for sound not to activate for 30 seconds after body cameras are activated, not only at the LMPD but other departments.)

“I do not enjoy knowing that my tax dollars pay for [police] to commit crimes. Based on the public statements last week by Chief of Police and the Mayor, they do not want to accept responsibility or be held accountable. We will vote you out,” said Falin.

Falin was not the only individual with critical feedback for the Council.

Matthew Lockard started by praising the Council members.

“You’ve made positive changes and brought new energy into our community,” said Lockard.

“Most all of you have full-time jobs and also serve on our City Council. We’re a small community that’s growing and facing new challenges and need leadership that can face these challenges. It’s time for La Mesa to have a full-time mayor,” Lockard continued. “Please research the creation of a full-time position for mayor. We need an experienced full-time mayor that can meet the challenges we’re facing and who will receive a salary commensurate with the demands of a full-time position.”

Mayor Mark Arapostathis, a local teacher who grew up in La Mesa, told constituents, “I’m sorry for the incident at the trolley, for everything that happened on Saturday, for the mistakes made and a lot of anger.” He added, “I am angry, too. The hurt, the fear and the anger are crushing me. It’s been very difficult for me because I hate seeing anyone in anguish, because I feel that I’m part La Mesa. It’s part of my body and so when it’s damaged, I’m damaged.”

One resident asked why the only Nixle alert sent was during the afternoon, when protesters on University Ave. moved onto I-8 and blocked a freeway. No warnings were sent to alert residents when violence began to escalate, fires burned unchecked and looters rampaged through the downtown village and Grossmont Center.

Others focused on use of force directed towards demonstrators.

Although many La Mesa residents requested defunding of the police, noting the 39 percentage budget allocation, no one requested a budget breakdown or budget transparency for the police department.

Another hot item on the agenda was whether to fly the rainbow flag at city hall in support of pride month.

Also, despite the plethora of requests to fly the pride flag, Jason and Heidi Robbins were in opposition, citing the need for only flying national flags

“The flying of flags by our city should be reserved for official national and state colors, and the honoring of our military with the POW and MIA flag. Any other flag representing an ideology that is not universally supported, or that many find controversial or distasteful is not appropriate and poses a danger of any group or movement demanding they have the right to have their own flag flown,” the Robbins’ written comments stated.

The Robbins were the only constituents who spoke out against the rainbow flag.

Former La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid was in agreement with flying the pride flag.

“I support and endorse the request before you to authorize the gay pride flag to be flown at city hall. By joining other enlightened cities throughout the region, state, and nation, you will demonstrate that this key segment of our society are entitled to have a voice and proper representation in your city,” said Madrid.

Other residents expressed similar sentiments.

 “Let’s fly the rainbow flag at city hall. It’s what we need right now – a symbol that shows us that love will win and love always does,” said Michael Dawson, 12-year La Mesa homeowner.

Councilmember Kristine Alessio was the only member who had responded to citizens voicing concern over the pride flag.

Council members voted on a motion to discuss the raising of the pride flag at the next meeting. At the end of public commentary, Alessio requested the procedure to bypass a vote and allow the City Manager to raise the flag independently of the Council.

Members agreed to speak to the City Attorney to determine whether the City Manager can raise the flag without a Council vote.

“We have a policy in place in La Mesa about what flags are flown at city hall, which everyone might not be aware of…if the city attorney thinks we can direct the city manager to raise that flag today without agendizing that, I’m fine with that but that would be a surprise to me, so my understanding is that we need to put it on an agenda for consideration and action as an agenda item,” said Council member Colin Parent.

However, Alessio expressed concern that at the next meeting, Pride Month would be approaching an end.

Although Alessio faced support for her prompt address for this pride flag issue, many other community members expressed distaste for Alessio, referencing her support for a civil defense group to help protect local businesses. Her support stems from the night of the riot, when police were overwhelmed, leaving some local business owners and community members to drive away looters on their own after some shops had already been broken into and had merchandise stolen. But some critics have voiced fears that a civil defense group could result in targeting of minorities by vigilantes, actions Alessio has indicated she would not support.

At one point, Alessio was called a “nut job Councilwoman” by resident Robert Meyer.

Resident April Zay also criticized Alessio during public commentary, saying that Alessio’s personal opinion should not be brought into press and that she should be removed from the Council as her judgment is skewed by decisions made for her boyfriend’s bookstore in the village.

Criticism of Alessio demonstrates that in spite of concerns over the looting and arson fires that devastated the city on May 30-31, La Mesa residents are still concerned about the Council’s history of concerning behaviors towards minorities.

As resident Jennifer Greg told the Council, “We know you are not showing up for true change and are still most concerned about protecting your comforts. It is easy to throw stones from atop your ‘Jewel of the Hills’ fortresses. We want actual transformative changes. There is no middle ground between La Mesa strong and black lives matter. Until black lives matter, La Mesa will never be strong.”

Briana Gomez holds an MBA from the University of La Verne and a Bachelor of Science in International Business from Azusa Pacific University and freelances as a journalist.  She is originally from La Mesa and lived in Japan for five years in her youth. After this experience, she took an interest in travelling and learning about global cultures and cultural identities.  She first travelled to Hungary in 2013 to teach English on a gap year before obtaining her master’s degree. Appreciating the experience, she returned in 2018 to pursue journalism and research on multicultural communication.

Gomez has written for online and local publications in Budapest and in her native San Diego, including coverage in East County Magazine. She is passionate about human rights and minority issues, bringing awareness to ethnic groups in our community. She also sits on the committee for the Arab and Muslim Community Coalition and is an active member of the San Diego Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and San Diego House of Lebanon.

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities  and coverage of emergencies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/

 


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