La Mesans defend business

A small fire lingered Sunday morning amid the rubble of the Chase Bank on Spring Street in La Mesa after the structure was burned to the ground Saturday night. Protestors of police violence and brutality gathered in front of the La Mesa Police Department during the afternoon on May 30. By nightfall San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies were firing tear gas and projectiles at the crowd. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore issued a statement saying deputies fired after people started vandalizing the police station and throwing bottles at law enforcement officers. Groups of people then made their way to La Mesa Village and set buildings on fire and smashed windows and looted. The next day hundreds of people went to the business district to view the destruction and help with clean up. The protests were in response to, in part, the death of George Floyd who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who was seen on video crushing Floyd’s neck with his knee for almost nine minutes. Also, earlier in the week, video showed a La Mesa police officer shoving Amaurie Johnson who had been approached by the officer for questioning. Both Floyd and Johnson are black and the officers involved are white. The La Mesa officer has been placed on leave pending an internal investigation.

A group of La Mesa residents formed an unofficial security force in the wake of the May 30 rioting, which left the Union and Chase banks on Spring Street burned to the ground and countless businesses broken into and looted.

The La Mesa Civil Defense, organized by local attorney Scott McMillan, met in person June 5 to strategize for that weekend as San Diego County continued to stir with protests.

“We believe that based on our experience on Saturday night that presence, competent presence, with de-escalation can discourage all these bad things that have happened,” said McMillan. “If we’re able to prevent a critical mass from developing at any particular place, we can prevent a lot of trouble.”

The nationwide protests are in response to the death of George Floyd who died while in police custody, but the weekend of May 30 saw an outburst of violence that has largely been attributed to outlier and anarchist groups unrelated to the protests.

The protest-turned-riot in La Mesa escalated with arson and reports of more than 1,000 people streaming into the Village after midnight to take advantage of the situation, leaving local police forces overwhelmed, prompted California Gov. Gavin Newsom to order the National Guard in.

“Cops are outnumbered, outmanned, overpowered,” said La Mesa resident Ken Herkert. “We’re not law enforcement, we’re not armed. We’re just going to be here armed with fire extinguishers and hoses, and de-escalate situations.”

Some have been comparing the La Mesa Civil Defense to the anti-protesters in Santee who were caught on video harassing non-violent protesters.

“There have been people on the internet saying this is a militia shooting people, and that’s not the case,” said Herkert. “We just want to set the record straight because there have been a lot of misconceptions. You can protest, you can peacefully demonstrate all you want.”

McMillan emphasized the need for de-escalation to a crowd of several dozen La Mesans who gathered in front of a closed Swami’s in the Village, urging for empathy and active listening to help bridge the gap between those rioting and those protecting their community.

“What that is is creating a sense of rapport,” he said. “A lot of this problem is that no one is listening.”

La Mesa Civil Defense volunteers were armed with radios and specific instructions to de-escalate situations and call proper authorities for anything that might look like it would require confrontation. The La Mesa Civil Defense is not working under the authority or expressed permission of the police department, but McMillan said the chief was aware of their intention to be present during the weekend.

“We’re entitled to protect property,” he said. “We don’t need permission. We have the right to stand here even if there’s a curfew, and they know it. We’re not here to advocate any position, we’re just here to make sure the rest of our town doesn’t get burned down.”

La Mesa did not see extensive protesting or any rioting last weekend, despite concerns.