By Miriam Raftery and Kendra Sitton
May 31, 2020 (La Mesa) -- With the acrid stench of burning rubble and tear gas still pungent in the air after a night of rioting, looting and destruction, a different kind of mob descended on La Mesa today. Some 500 to 600 volunteers came armed with brooms, power tools and paint brushes to clean up debris and broken glass, paint over graffiti and board up storefront windows to help protect local businesses if looters return tonight.
Stories of heroism also emerged – business owners, neighbors and strangers who came during the night to drive out looters with baseball bats and makeshift clubs, douse spot fires with fire extinguishers, and help save La Mesa’s historic downtown village.
Last night's mayhem occurred after a day of protests over police violence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Locally, some also came to protest La Mesa Police after an LMPD officer was shown on a viral video pushing an African-American suspect into a sitting position during a controversial stop. But after dark, the mood turned ugly, with some outside groups arriving to engage in firebombing and looting of businesses.
Theresa Favro (photo, right), owner of Amethyst Moon, says that after a looter smashed her front glass door with a skateboard during the night, community members with baseball bats chased them away. “I’m grateful to them,” she told ECM.
A woman who asked not to be identified said, “We had heard through friends on social media that people were starting to bash in the doors of our friend’s business so a number of people came out and supported them and stood in front of their businesses.” She says the looters left businesses alone where citizens stood guard. “We walked up and down the street and protected as many as businesses as we could,” she told ECM, adding that she carried a walking stick, while other defenders of downtown brought baseball bats and plumbing pipes.
She added that she does not believe the protesters were the ones who caused the damage, notingt hat she saw people come in vehicles and later flee, some jumping into trunks. “They were working in groups,” she said, with some busting windows, others as lookouts while looters rushed in.
The witness told ECM that the rioters also ignited fires in trashcans up and down La Mesa Boulevard in the downtown district, but that fortunately business owners came with fire extinguishers to douse the flames. “Thank you for everybody who helped defend La Mesa, because this is our town and we care about it.”
Firefighters were nowhere in sight, with mutual aid refusing to send backup units due to fears that with law enforcement overwhelmed and outnumbered, rioters could attack firefighters. The Sheriff did not dispatch firefighting helicopters due to some rioters who pointed lasers at helicopter pilots in the vicinity, a law enforcement officer told ECM.
This morning, the sound of buzzsaws cutting plywood to board up windows replaced the terrifying sounds of fire bombs that punctuated the night with explosive sounds.
Many merchants today were boarding up windows and doors, even if they didn’t have damage last night. The owner of Hoffer’s Cigar Bar, which has been shut down for two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said he plans to leave plywood up for the next month. At Swami’s restaurant, the owner went a step further, installing drywall to cover the façade of his eatery.
Others took no such precautions, though at least one business, Surfrider Pizza, has hired a security guard, according to an employee working today at the restaurant packed with customers.
The downtown area also grew choked with onlookers. In particular, a crowd gathered to watch as fire flared up again the historic art deco building that housed the Randall Lamb engineering firm. Firefighters hosed the building, but there was little left to save. (Photos, right)
People gathered seemed most upset by the loss of the independent firm compared to the two banks next door that burned to the ground.
“This isn’t corporate or anything,” a woman cried to her friends as they watched the husk disintegrate.
People also stopped to view the smoldering remains of Chase Bank and Union Bank from behind caution tape. Cinders still smoked and a precarious piece of metal fell as people filmed. One had “BLM” spray-painted next to the bank’s toppled sign, though elsewhere white arsonists have been caught on video tagging burned buildings with BLM initials in an apparent effort to lay blame on the Black Lives Matter movement.
Photos, left and below: Charred remains of Union and Chase banks in downtown La Mesa
So many people attended the impromptu cleanup this morning that had been announced on social media that police were present to direct traffic. Inoperable streetlights caused many roads to be particularly slow as well.
On the other side of the trolley tracks, people were hard at work. A group gathered around an MTS bus stop to scrub off graffiti and sweep up shards of glass. Evidence of a tear gas cylinder was left in the rubble. The sweeping filled the air with the small amount of gas left on the ground. Volunteers’ sinuses stung and noses ran from the irritant, even in such a small amount.
A city staffer told ECM that a fire was set inside the city clerk’s office at City Hall, which fortunately was extinguished, perhaps by the fire department or a good Samaritan. Some recent records burned, though historic documents were spared, the source said.
At the American Legion building, where rioters burned an American flag last night, a new flag had been hoisted today, waving proudly above the Legion hall. (photo, left)
At the La Mesa Springs shopping center, university police officers stood guard. One officer told ECM that fires had been set inside the Vons store(photo, right) but that the fire department doused them; the main damage was from looters. Here, too, pools of liquid and the odor of tear gas lingered.
Play It Again Sports had a small fire and sustained some smoke damage as well as theft by looters. Most other businesses had windows smashed and some, such as Sally’s Beauty Supply, also suffered looting losses.
A La Mesa resident who asked not to be named called local companies and rounded up donations of free food and water for the army of volunteers. Valley Farms Market, Trader Joe's, Chipotles, Sprouts Farmer Market, Casa de Pico, Jersey Mike’s, Panda Express and round Table Pizza all donated food, water, or doled out free meals at La Mesa Springs.
The Rock Church live-streamed a spiritual service from the parking lot, where a pastor praised Jesus and denounced the devil's work (photo, left). While most volunteers across La Mesa wore masks while doing cleanup work and painting, many at the religious gathering did not wear masks or practice social distancing as they sought to offer emotional support for a community suffering the anguish of first a pandemic and now losses due to civil unrest.
Jerry Corley came all the way from Alpine. “I’ve got my paint and I’m painting!” he exclaimed, using a long-handled roller and paint he purchased himself at Home Depot to cover up graffiti on a wall.
Nearby, someone had left flowers and a message reading "R.I.P. George Floyd," a silent memorial tribute to the slain Black victim of police violence in Minneapolis.
There were mixed emotions among those working to clean the area. One woman declined to be interviewed because she wouldn’t have anything charitable to say about the events of the night before.
“It’s sad to see everything that happened last night but also very understandable,” said lifelong La Mesa resident Saz Benchekroun in reference to the anger of the protesters.
Benchekroun did not participate in the protest because of the confusion around who organized it.
The San Diego chapter of Black Lives Matter and Black Womxn 4 SD have a caravan protest planned for next week but did not endorse any of the actions being taken this weekend. The groups have said they did vet the La Mesa and El Cajon protests on Saturday as well as a couple protests on Sunday to say the organizers were legitimate, but urged people to stay away from the Downtown San Diego protests on Saturday which were allegedly planned by the alt-right to sow chaos.
In another area, a La Mesa resident brought her friends from all across the region to help clean up. The group of women painted over graffiti on a brick wall together.
“I felt like it was the right thing to do to help my community rebound. I talked to neighbors who said they didn't sleep all night because they live in The Village — it was scary,” Crystal Arnote said. “If it happens in one place of San Diego, it happens to all of San Diego.”
The efforts were not entirely volunteer-led. At Legacy Estates, professional contractors came in to board up broken windows and put wood barriers over the remaining glass doors in case the protests return to the quiet center of La Mesa for a second day.
Some painted message of hope scrawled on sidewalks and walls - positive graffiti to replace words of hate. "Rebuild La Mesa," one colored chalk statement said. Another offered a prayerful plea, "God, Save our city." (Photos, left and right)
As protests this afternoon shut down Interstate 5 and the Coronado Bridge, La Mesa has beefed up security. By mid-afternoon, police vehicles were blocking access to multiple streets. Law enforcement officials told me reinforcements from the U.S. Border Patrol will be helping to protect the city tonight, along with officers from the Sheriff’s Department, university police, and La Mesa Police Department.
At Grossmont Center, the mall shut down early and K-rails have been erected to block entrances, preventing vehicles from driving in. Last night, looters broke into Walmart and Target, though most other mall stores were spared major damage. Down the hill, the new drive-through Starbucks and a liquor store also sustained damage in last night’s mayhem.
The City Council met in an emergency session this morning and issued a curfew starting at 7 p.m. tonight until 7 a.m. Monday morning.
Councilwoman Kristine Alessio blames outsiders for the havoc. She posted images of last night’s devastation on Facebook today (photo, below), with this message to the community:
“I’m sickened. About La Mesa—we are a small town, no political party is in control, we have a diverse and open Council and we work well. Our residents didn’t do this to their City. We allowed peaceful protests as we should. My heart breaks.”
A Rebuild La Mesa fund has been set up by Phil Ortiz and the East County Chamber of Commerce to help businesses damaged or destroyed by the riots. You can donate here.
Miriam Raftery, ECM Editor and host of ECM's radio show on KNSJ, has won more than 350 journalism awards for national and regional coverage. Her experience covering major protests, disasters and civil unrest includes the Alfred Olango police shooting in El Cajon anti-war marches in Washington D.C. during the Iraq War, protests over lack of federal resources after Hurricane Katrina, demonstrations by Iraqi-Americans in El Cajon calling on the U.S. to protect Iraqi Chaldean Christians from ISIS terrorists, and two of California's worst wildfires -- the 2003 Cedar Fire and 2007 firestorms in San Diego County.
Kendra Sitton is a local editor at San Diego Community Newspaper Group who also serves as the editor of San Diego Uptown News and Downtown News. A freelance reporter for ECM and other publications, she has won awards in 2019 for her articles on San Diego Police Department policies regarding transgender civilians and other LGBTQ issues. She holds a degree in mass communications with minors in sociology and global cultural studies at Concordia University Irvine.Her coverage for ECM has included border, immigrant and refugee communities, land use issues and the recovery of Deerhorn Valley ten years after the Harris wildfire.
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