Protest dissolves into chaos as rioters burn down Chase and Union banks, loot retail stores and attack La Mesa Police headquarters
By Paul Kruze, Contributing Editor; Miriam Raftery and Rebecca Jefferis Williamson also contributed to this report
Photo, left: screenshot via ECM news partner NBC 7 shows Chase and Union Banks in flames at the heart of La Mesa's downtown village
May 31, 2020 (La Mesa) -- The cozy bedroom community of La Mesa, long likened to the fictious Mayberry RFD town of TV fame, lost its innocence overnight when rioters overran the city. Multiple arson fires and widespread looting swiftly overwhelmed local police and firefighters after protests over police violence earlier in the day. Mutual aid proved inadequate, leaving La Mesa without adequate resources to defend the city.
The violence escalated after an afternoon of protests against the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, as well as against La Mesa Police over an incident adjacent to the Grossmont transit center in which an LMPD officer pushed a suspect into a seated position in a stop criticized by some as racial profiling. The officer has been placed on leave pending investigation. The protests began with a peaceful rally and march, with protestors later blocking freeway traffic a breaching a line of CHP vehicles.
Serious trouble began in the early evening when protestors, many clad in black clothing and black face masks, started throwing rocks and bottles and other projectiles at the La Mesa Police Department headquarters on University Avenue downtown. It is unclear whether these were the same demonstrators present during an earlier peaceful march, though some residents reporting witnessing vehicles coming in late in the day with occupants clad in black clothing and dark masks. Numerous windows were broken and the building was spray painted with graffiti. (photos left and right by Paul Kruze: graffiti on LMPD station, officers during siege)
Members of the La Mesa Police Department alongside deputies from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department guarded the building, along with others in the La Mesa city center area wearing helmets and holding night sticks. Demonstrators hurled rocks at the department’s Bearcat vehicle, after which police began lobbing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, with little effect. These methods were used at multiple locations as the mob spread out through La Mesa, wreaking havoc.
A protestor, Ariana Plascencia of Lemon Grove, told ECM reporter Rebecca Willamson, who was present at the fracas, “I put my hands up because violence put us here in the first place. I got gassed. I want justice for innocent people. This needs to stop!”
She added, “I got my milk from the parking lot where people united. When they started throwing gas I saw the milk on the floor, and it burned so bad, I had to pour it on myself.”
Photo, left by Rebecca Jefferis-Williamson: Tear gas deployed at La Mesa Springs shopping center
While the law enforcements officers fought to keep protestors at bay near the civic center, the La Mesa Springs shopping center at the 8000 block of La Mesa Blvd. got the full brunt of the protestors. Many of the small businesses in the center closed early in anticipation of violence erupting, including a sports equipment store, nail salon, and yogurt shop. Trouble started at 9 p.m. after the VONS store closed. The rioters stormed the store, looting it of beer and wine. They also set on fire a VONS food delivery truck parked in back of the store.
Photo, right by Paul Kruze: delivery truck burned behind Vons store on University Ave.
In the choking and eye-burning fog of tear canisters being expelled, East County Magazine witnessed an army of law enforcement officers entering the store scouring the grocery store to clear out rioters.
As the evening wore on, rioters burned a U.S. flag atop a flagpole in front of the American Legion post.
After 10 p.m., La Mesa Police rushed to the Walmart store at Grossmont Center, where looters overcame a makeshift barricade of large stacked pallets filled with water bottles and broke into the store. There, they ran in and out of the store stealing television sets and other electronic equipment before the police could stop them.
(Photo, left, by Rebecca Jefferis-Williamson: Looters pillage Walmart at the Grossmont Center regional shopping mall.)
ECM also observed rioters gathering in front of the Target store at the other end of the store before police arrived on scene.
The worst damage and violence came later, when rioters set fire to the Chase Bank and Union Bank buildings on Spring Street, but firefighters did not initially respond to battle the blazes. The fire at the Chase Bank was reported at 11:17 p.m. When questioned by ECM as the blaze burned, La Mesa City Councilman Bill Baber said that the firefighters would not attempt to put out the fires because the law enforcement officers on the ground were not able to overcome the protestors to ensure their safety.
Photos by Paul Kruze: left, vandalized ATM machine at California Coast Credit Union; right, LMPD vehicles guard police station
In addition to the Chase Bank and Union Bank on Spring Street being destroyed by fire, the offices of Randall Lamb, a consulting engineer business on the 4700 block of Palm Avenue, was torched by the rioters and completely destroyed by fire.
Videographer Jake Rose captured dramatic images of arsonists igniting the historic structure.(photo, below right)
Footage shot by San Diego News Video around 3:30 a.m. showed the roof of the Randall Lamb building collapsing, flames shooting up towards the sky as sparks rained down close to nearby trees and structures, with no fire trucks or firefighters in sight during the freelance videographer’s extended early morning coverage.
As the night wore on, La Mesa residents posted frantic messages on social media, with no updates coming from besieged law enforcement agencies. Sounds of incendiary device and exploses kept neighbors on edge. On Next Door, some neighbors reported that armed residents chased off would-be looters outside the Sprouts market downtown; other posts indicated some business owners had resorted to guarding their own small businesses. ECM has no independent verification as yet of those incidents.
After being mainly absent from public view the entire day and evening as the commotion in his city unfolded, La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis wearing a black face mask, issued a short video public statement at 1:30 a.m. Sunday on Twitter, declaring a curfew in the City of La Mesa. (Photo, left: Screenshot of Mayor's announcement, via city's video)
With La Mesa City Manager Greg Humora, and members of the City Council at his side, a visibly shaken Arapostathis haltingly read this statement from a torn piece of paper:
“Good morning, I’m Mayor Arapostathis. This morning, the City Council and I just concluded an emergency meeting. In light of ongoing events in the City of La Mesa, the entire city council is very upset and disheartened. We are utilizing all available resources and have reached out to the State for all additional aid to assist us in this emergency. We are committed to the safety and well-being of all of our citizens. As of 1:30 a.m. this morning, the City Manager is enacting a curfew that will last until 7 a.m. Please stay sheltered at home. And please stay safe. Thank you.”
Photos by Paul Kruze: right, police in riot gear in downtown La Mesa, left, a face mask worn during COVID-19 pandemic, discarded amid the chaos.
Heartland Fire did respond to an emergency call at a building in the 8100 block of Commercial Street identified as the headquarters of the City of La Mesa Public Works.
Numerous businesses sustained vandalism, looting or other damage including Sally’s Beauty Supply, La Mesa Liquor, Play It Again Sports, Amethyst Moon, Pierce’s Jewelry, Cal Coast Credit Union, Vons, Walmart, and Target.
ECM has contacted media relations representatives for Chase Bank and Union Bank on whether temporary banking facilities will open for customers, or whether the banks will reopen those branches in the future at all.
The influx of thousands of protesters and later, rioters running wild amid the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-home orders raise concerns about potential spread of the infectious disease in La Mesa, as well as fears over what may happen if rioters return on subsequent nights, as has occurred in many cities across the nation following protests against police violence.
But in La Mesa, last night's violence targeted not only police, but also victimized many merchants already struggling to revive their livelihoods after months of shutdown and reduced revenues due to the pandemic, as well as residents looking on in horror as banks burned and the adjacent century-old historic village very nearly went up in flames.
Copyright ©2020 by PaulKruzeLive.com, All Rights Reserved
Paul Kruze, contributing editor of East County Magazine, is a multimedia journalist with experience in print, broadcast and web platforms. A tenacious investigative journalist, he has covered a variety of subjects, particularly governmental and educational issues.
He has been recognized with multiple awards from San Diego Press Club and Society of Professional Journalists, including the Gloria Penner Award for political reporting from SPJ as well as first place honors for investigative reporting, news features and multicultural reporting from SDPC. His work appears in local and regional venues as well as in nationwide syndication. His honors for works with ECM include his in-depth reporting on the El Cajon City Council, Cajon Valley Union School District, local business news, and the East County Performing Arts Center.
East County Magazine thanks the Facebook Journalism Project for support through its COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program to help sustain reporting on vulnerable local populations and rural communities. Learn more at #FacebookJournalismProject.
You can donate to support our local journalism efforts during the pandemic at https://www.EastCountyMedia.org/donate.