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By Henri Migala

Rebecca Jefferis Williamson also contributed to this report.

Photo, left, by Henri Migala: La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez speaks with protesters

June 14, 2020 (La Mesa) -- Before you could see them, you could hear them.  With a rumble that made the air vibrate, over 215 motorcyclists from approximately 15 motorcycle clubs rolled into the parking lot across the street from the police station in La Mesa. The riders joined another 150 protesters who were waiting at the parking lot for what was billed as a “Unity Ride Meets Unity Protest”. 

This was the very site of the now infamous clash between La Mesa police and protesters that happened on Saturday, May 30 during the national protests over police violence prompted by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer now charged with murder.

The May 30 protest in La Mesa started peacefully, but ended with the police dispersing the crowd with tear gas, pepper spray pellets, ‘flash-bang’ grenades and other non-lethal weapons, leaving one woman severely wounded with a projectile embedded in her forehead.  Multiple businesses were burned and looted in the area following the protests, but it’s still not certain who exactly initiated and participated in the arson and looting, or why.

But today, instead of encountering numerous police dressed in riot gear and prepared for a confrontation, the protesters were met by Police Chief Walt Vasquez and several other officers and staff from the police department and community, including Mayor Arapostathis.

Photo, right, by Rebecca Jefferis-Williamson: Motorcycles converge at rally.

The entrance to the police station was taped off, but Chief Vasquez was on the public side of the tape, speaking, interacting with and hugging protesters including members of the Buffalo Soldiers motorcycle club, named for the all-black civil war cavalry brigade. 

Photo, left, by Henri Migala: LMPD Chief Vasquez embraces a Buffalo Soldiers rider.

The peaceful interactions were interrupted by a young white male who said his name is “Robert.”  Robert asked Chief Vasquez why he was not at the main rally. While Chief Vasquez was answering questions and visiting with members of the public in front of he station, the rally was taking place in the parking lot across the street, where leaders of the event were addressing the assembled crowd. Chief Vasquez was pulled away by other members of the public, so Robert directed his frustration at a young woman who asked him a question. Some media members covering the event were focused on Robert’s interaction with the young woman than with the content of the rally.  Leaders from the rally then came and asked everyone to please stop distracting from the main purpose and message of the rally that was taking place in the parking lot.

Several members from rally then confronted Robert and told him that although he was welcome at the rally, if he was going to distract from the event and cause problems, then he should either “go off to the side somewhere and relax” or “just leave.”

The rally was generally high-spirited and friendly.  Numerous speakers addressed those who were assembled, but it was difficult to hear what they were saying because of a generator that was running the public announcement system.

Photo, right by Rebecca Jefferis-Williamson: Protester holds "Black Lives Matter" sign to greet arriving motorcyclists in Unity Ride

A flyer for the event organized by Tasha Williamson listed three demands including identification and firing of the LMPD officer who shot Leslie Fucron with a beanbag on May 30. It also called for Officer Matt Dages be fired and prosecuted. A video showing a portion of Dages arrest of Amaurie Johnson the week prior to the May 30 protest went viral; body cam footage later released failed to back the officer’s version and charges against Johnson of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest were dropped. An independent investigation of the Dages-Johnson incident is slated for completion by July 1. Firing police officers is not a power held by the City Council or Mayor. This power rests with the police chief, after an investigation and due process requirements in the city’s contract with the police union contract are met.

The third action sought by protesters is for the La Mesa City Council to hold an open, public town hall to “hear and follow the demands of the people it swears to serve.” Public gatherings remain prohibited due to COVID-19 (though protests are allowed due to First Amendment rights), so any town hall would likely need to be virtual (online) due to social distancing regulations mandated by the County’s public health official. 

The city of La Mesa has taken some steps to address racial injustice concerns regarding its police force. A citizens’ police oversight commission had already been approved by the city council long before killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer ignited national protests. The oversight commission is slated to have its first meeting next week. LMPD has also recently banned chokeholds.

Chief Vasquez told ECM news partner Times of San Diego,"Change occurs when people come together … when people peacefully communicate their views.”

During the Unity Rally June 14, the crowd assembled was primarily young people,  black, white and others there in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In attendance was Rev. Marcus Lohrmann, with the La Mesa Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church. 

Photo, left by Rebecca Jefferis-Williamson: Rev. Marcus Lohrmann

"White clergy promised to show up 57 years ago for Dr. King; we never did," said Rev. Lohrmann. "I'm here in affirmation of the work of Black Lives Matter. This is long overdue." 

Also present were numerous “medic” volunteers. "We're here to serve all," said freelance nurse Christine Kelly. She was with a group of five other nurses. Kelly said they had a group of 180 freelance healthcare workers who have serviced all of the BLM protests in San Diego County thus far. 

Photo, right, by Rebecca Jefferis Williamson:  Medics from the Red Cross assist a protester suffering a possible heat-related illness. There were no injuries during the June 14 protest.

The team of six helped a woman who collapsed from either heat stroke or low-blood sugar. Volunteer medics were also present two weeks ago and treated multiple people who were shot with projectiles fired by the police, and suffered from the effects of tear gas and pepper-powder.

La Mesa resident Tareq Asfour, who says he is with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), personally addressed  La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis and called for his resignation. At a City Council meeting earlier in the week, the mayor took heat from some residents over both actions by police and what some criticized as inadequate responses to the looting and burning during the May 30-31 night of rioting. But others have voiced support for the mayor, a local teacher and junior theater instructor, on social media posts and a vehicle parade earlier this week.

Photo, left by Rebecca Jefferis Williamson: Tareq Asfoor confronts Mayor Mark Arapostathis

At one point, a man in his mid to late 30s shouted “The cops are here!” while pointing out to the street.  He seemed angry and agitated. There were two police cruisers with their lights flashing parked on University Ave.  Behind them was a fire truck and an ambulance.  Five rescue/EMT personnel pushing a transport stretcher were escorted by four police officers who started making their way into the parking lot where the rally was being held.  Several members from the rally then started advancing toward them. 

After learning that the fire/medical personnel were responding to someone in the rally who had collapsed from the heat, everyone relaxed. 

Off to the side were a group of four people filming a music video with the protest as a backdrop.  A young African American woman came up and recorded them with her phone, outraged that the group would be using such an important event for their own entertainment.

As the speakers finished their remarks and the people started going on their way, two young men, one African American with a trombone, the other white, with a saxophone, started playing music.  As they played their instruments and the crowd gathered around them, the young men started distributing other rhythm-type instruments to the people.  The peaceful rally had transitioned to an impromptu concert in the parking lot. (View video of musicians)

The motorcyclists then departed (video) as the rally concluded peacefully amid sounds of hope for healing for the community.

This is La Mesa strong!

Photo, left by Henri Migala:  Police including Chief Vasquez and another officer embrace participants in the Unity Ride.

Photo, right by Rebecca Jefferis-Williamson:  Buffalo Soldier rider smiles broadly during Unity Ride and Unity Protest.




Dr.Henri Migala is the founder of Henri Migala Photography. He has won numerous photography awards and most recently had one of his images chosen as a “Top 10” finalist  in the  Smithsonian Magazine Photo Contest out of 48,000 submissions.  The independent photographer has previously provided video and photography for ECM ranging from bighorn sheep in the Anza-Borrego Desert to presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s San Diego visit .

He has lived and worked in 15 countries in global health, international development, higher education administration and humanitarian aid including disaster relief. His past positions include Director of the International House at the University of California San Diego, Executive Dean and Grants Administrator for the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, and Adjunct Faculty instructor at San Diego City College. He holds a doctor of education degree from San Diego State university, a Masters in Public Health degree from the University of North Teas, and a Master of Art degree at the University of Texas, where he studied anthropology.

He is a volunteer and board member with AGuilas del Desierto, Inc., helping to save lives of lost migrants, and as a Rotary Club President, has worked with International Relief Teams.  He speaks three languages (English, Spanish and French) has won many awards for his community service, and his international activities include working to eradicate polio through the World ealth Organization as well as participating in rural, border and cross-cultural health issues, , disaster relief and reconstruction.  He has published numerous academic papers and written nearly $30 million in grants that have funded.

East County Magazine gratefully thanks the Facebook Journalism Project for support through its COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program to help make this reporting possible. #FacebookJournalismProject. 

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