Story and photos by Jake Rose, photographer
June 5, 2020 (La Mesa) -- Afternoon protests against police violence in La Mesa on Saturday afternoon started off entirely peaceful. After the march on May 30, the crowd moved to the La Mesa Police Department parking lot, their final destination. The crowd advanced up the steps to the front door without incident and remained there chanting and cheering for about an hour, until someone in the crowd threw a small plastic water bottle towards the police guarding the building.
The police immediately responded with tear gas and concussion grenades and the crowd dispersed across the parking lot. After a few minutes, the crowd slowly reconvened in front of the police station and began chanting, until again, a water bottle was thrown and the chaos repeated itself.
This cycle continued a while until some folks from the crowd picked up the rocks that were used as landscaping in the parking lot and began throwing them at the windows of the police station. No one I saw threw rocks at police officers, but many rocks were thrown at the building with intent to cause damage. (Editor's note: ECM news partner Times of San Diego editor Ken Stone has video showing protesters throwing rocks at an LMPD Bearcat armored vehicle with officers inside, an incident that Jake Rose did not witness.)
More tear gas, paint balls, and concussion grenades were fired at the crowd, and most of the more peaceful protesters decided enough was enough and started leaving the scene around 7:30 p.m.
Photo, left: Pastor Travis Ferguson pauses to talk with a young man with a skateboard across the street from where an unknown vandal shattered the door of the Amethyst Moon shop with a skateboard.
Photo, right: Regal Bar's owners guarded their business from inside while a man with a baseball bat stood guard outside, two of many who turned out late at night to protect businesses on La Mesa Blvd. as police became overwhelmed by rioters, looters and arsonists wreaking havoc across the city.
By midnight, the situation downtown devolved into lawless chaos. It was a common sight to see young people breaking windows and vandalizing, and directly across the street you would see people of all ages and races discussing the efficacy of what was happening, though not at all participating.
Despite the destruction, many people remained surprisingly cordial. Yet the mood was ominous. It was clear there was no immediate police presence and that a call to 911 in downtown La Mesa at that moment was not going to get a response. There was no law enforcement in sight, except for a line of officers who remained in front of the police station, though the station at that point was devoid of anyone other than law enforcement.
Breaking glass could be heard all around, hedges were burning as people watched. It felt like a movie set, unreal.
Two banks were smoldering and it seemed it could not get any worse as bushes burned at Allison & Palm Ave.
Photo, right: Chase Bank in flames.
Photos, left: Arsonists and bystanders at Randall Lamb, a historial building destroyed
Suddenly more glass shattering nearby as people broke into the Randall Lamb building. Within minutes there was a small fire inside as people from the street rushed in. No one seemed interested in stealing from this building, instead they grabbed things within the building to feed the fire that was growing in the lobby. Chairs, artwork, anything that could be moved was used to fuel the flames.
There were about a dozen people actively feeding the fire as about 75 spectators outside looked on in disbelief. As the fire grew, people fled the building to watch across the street. It seemed the fire was going to grow and die in the front lobby, but soon it exploded as flames and smoke bellowed out of every window in dramatic fashion.
As the fire grew, police vehicles finally arrived, lights and sirens blaring, and were met with more thrown rocks from the crowd along Allison Ave.
This video shows arsonists inside the Randall Lamb building, igniting the fire that destroyed this historic structure:
Photo, right: Police line outside burning buildings.
When the firefighters arrived, the same crowd that threw rocks at the police cars did not throw anything at the firefighters, a clear sign of who they were angry with, and who they weren’t angry with.
As it became clear the building would be totally lost, there was a sense among the crowd this had gone too far. Even many people there who indicated that they felt justified in vandalism (such as graffiti or broken glass) -- because peaceful gestures in the past had not ended instances of police brutality—voiced sadness at seeing the flames.
As the knee on the neck was a clear metaphor for a larger issue, so did the fire feel like a sea change of emotions, a signal that this conversation would not be over this night.
Jake Rose is a San Diego based photographer and reporter. His work has been shown in numerous galleries in San Diego, and he is the winner of the 2017 San Diego CItybeat Photography award.
Raised in San Diego and a graduate of SDSU's film program, Jake worked in the film industry in Los Angeles for a number of years before returning to San Diego for work in journalism, advertising, and corporate media. Street photography, man-made landscapes, and the human condition are the core focus of Jake's work.
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 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/