As late as 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, flames flickered beneath the smoldering wreckage of Union Bank on Spring Street in La Mesa, following a night of looting and arson in the Village area when rioters overtook a peaceful protest against police brutality. Smoke was still pungent in the air as people walked by on Sunday afternoon with cameras and phones out to capture the sight of Union Bank and Chase Bank burned to the ground, with nothing but a few metals beams, ATMs and a drive-through frame still standing. The rest of the Village, however, showed little sign of the previous night’s violence.
In response to the riots, community members showed up early Sunday morning to clean up the broken glass, graffiti and debris left on the streets from the rioters.
“The community outpouring is just awesome,” said Mark Robak, a commercial real estate broker in the Village. “This morning, everyone out here had a broom and a dustpan.”
Some came because of personal connections to businesses and business owners in the area. Others heard about it through social media.
Craig Maxwell, owner of Maxwell’s House of Books, said the clean-up was impressive.
“That was as inspiring as the previous night had been horrific,” he said. “To see so many good people come out was very moving. It was such a contrast to the example set by the exact same species – homo sapiens – the night before. If you want a study of the full range of human potential, compare the night before to the morning after.”
In addition to the volunteer clean-up crew, people were passing out water bottles and a local grocer donated fruit bowls and snacks to people out on the streets as the Village put itself back together.
Maxwell said he closed his shop early on Saturday evening after the tenor of the protest began to shift. The few hundred protesters who had set up in front of the La Mesa Police Department were overwhelmed by what Maxwell said were several thousand rioters.
The initial protest was sparked by the death of Minnesota man George Floyd who died while in police custody. The incident was caught on video, inciting protests and demonstrations against police brutality around the country last weekend. La Mesa protesters gathered on Saturday with signs and calls for change.
“I believe their situation was taken advantage of by outsiders, by anarchists,” said the bookstore owner. “By the time things got rolling here in the Village, the Village was just filled with cars from the outside. Most of them had California plates but I heard most of them were from not just the broader San Diego area, but some from as far away as LA. In the end, they vastly outnumbered the original protesters.”
Staying overnight in his shop, Maxwell said what he watched unfold in the Village was chaotic.
“It was horrific, it really was,” he really said. “I never thought I’d see anything like this anywhere, much less in La Mesa. By the time it was all over, it was complete anarchy. I actually saw a society that had been reduced to lawlessness.”
Eric Andersen, a small business owner in La Mesa, said his office, which is located in the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center, was beaten into. He and his wife went down early Sunday morning to survey the damage, finding broken windows, smashed and stolen equipment and damaged furniture. But, like many in San Diego County, Andersen had already planned to attend his church’s worship service that morning – it’s first since the COVID-19 shutdowns.
“I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to church,” said Andersen. “‘There’s nothing more they can do to me.’”
Andersen said he called a boarding company to take care of the shattered windows, turned off his cell phone and went to church. When he finally turned his phone back on, Andersen said friends had told him his office had been completely cleaned up.
“Everyone was here with wagons and buckets and brooms, and they just wanted to be available to help. It was beautiful,” said Andersen, who went back to his La Mesa office and continued to receive help and support from friends and strangers alike. “The kind of calls I’ve seen are unprecedented, the kind of help I’ve seen is unprecedented. It’s so beautiful. We needed something positive.”
Andersen said other business owners in the area who stayed around to protect their property on Saturday night filled him in on what had happened, saying that after looting the VONS and the Sally’s, rioters turned to Play It Again Sports where they took golf clubs and bats with which they inflicted damage on surrounding businesses.
Thankfully for Andersen, because of COVID-19 work regulations, he and his staff had been working from home, so much of their day-to-day equipment was not in the office when the rioters went through.
Play It Again Sports, however, took quite a hit.
“I was there because I live close by and the three of us tried to stop the looting,” said Giovanni Anguiano, one of three employees, not including the manager. “Once we got there, the store was already burning from the inside and the sprinklers were going off. My coworker tried to direct the people outside the store.”
Maxwell said he thinks the only reason his bookshop was spared was because he and some friends kept guard over it, leaving the lights on and keeping a presence in the front of the store.
“We watched and maintained a low profile but made it clear to people that we were here, too,” he said. “This is a big tinder box, a store like this. These people were arsonists. In the final analysis, after breaking in and looting, they were setting places ablaze.”
Several other buildings suffered fire damage, though the lumber yard across from the Chase bank was spared.
Barbara Sanderstone, a Spring Valley resident who banks with Chase, said she got a call on Sunday that her bank had been burned down.
“This has hurt everybody,” she said. “This is uncalled for. This whole nation needs to get down on their knees and start praying, that’s what they need to do. This country is so divided, it’s really sad, but I never would have thought it would have gotten to San Diego.”
Sanderstone said she has been banking with Chase since its days as Washington Mutual in the ’70s.
“Everybody is so nice when you come into this here bank,” she said. “It’s just sad, I just can’t believe it. That’s all our lives in this bank.”
Although shops still have windows boarded up, and many owners were taking precautions against possible further violence Sunday and Monday evening, the Village seems to be doing alright.
“It’s not business as usual, but there are signs of recovery,” said Maxwell on Monday. “Hopefully, there will be recovery for everyone eventually. Some of us suffered a lot worse than others. People like Pierre, the jeweller up the street – his place was just devastated.”
Several gofundme campaigns have already begun for La Mesa businesses affected by the riots, including Play It Again Sports and a local aquarium and reef supply store. The East County Chamber of Commerce’s gofundme campaign, “La Mesa Business Disaster Recovery,” has raised more than $100,000 for local businesses, many of whom were already on the brink of closure because of COVID-19.
“Our community is different. La Mesa, it’s citizens and surrounding communities are strong. We almost reached our goal of $50,000 in less than 12 hours,” Phil Ortiz posted to the page. Ortiz is one of the campaign’s organizers, and an El Cajon city council member and East County Chamber of Commerce board member. His efforts to set up the fundraiser are joined by Barry Jantz, Patrick Howard, Rick Wilson and Kyle Taylor, and the more-than 1000 donors who have already contributed.
The page’s comment section overflows with words of love and encouragement, both from former and current La Mesa residents and from the surrounding San Diego community.
The violence may mean permanent changes for the way the Village does business, Maxwell said, which could include measures like hiring private security for their stores the way shopping malls do.
“What happened ultimately is certainly very regrettable and we who are here in the Village who have shops that our lives depend on, we can’t do this again,” he said.
Many residents have been asking why the police force did not do more during the riots to stymie the blatant arson. Maxwell said, from his perspective watching the riots progress, it was probably a numbers game. Even with volunteers coming from other departments around the county, including the county sheriff’s department and local community colleges, Maxwell said the thousands of rioters simply outnumbered the police presence.
“I know the fire department was reluctant to get involved in some of the initial blazes because the situation was so dangerous,” said Maxwell. “They didn’t have adequate police control. So it wasn’t until that point that the fire chief was willing to expose his officers to some of the worst.”
Sandstone said the damage could have been avoided if officials had handled George Floyd’s death differently from the start.
“That cop was wrong, they should have handled it right then,” she said. “When you don’t handle stuff right then, look at what it’s cost. Maybe if this had gotten handled when this here first happened, all of this here might not be happening nationwide.”
Sanderstone said racism has been in the country since before her time, but it should not be.
“You no different, I’m no different,” she said. “You bleed, I bleed.”
Andersen, who also serves on the Central Committee for the 71st Assembly District, said there needs to be more engagement between the people of this nation to talk through and understand the issues the country faces, that all sides need to have a platform to share their pain, their fears, their stories, and then be able to engage in dialogue. But, said Andersen, ultimately both the fear rippling through the nation because of police brutality and the devastation many local, privately owned businesses have felt from the pressures of COVID-19 regulations have the same root: a government acting outside its jurisdiction.
“I believe in a just society. All men are equal, and law should protect that,” said Andersen. “That’s the role of limited government. I look at those values and I see how they were corrupted… When I look at what happened at my office and my community, I see a departure from the basic principles of a just society. A government failing to uphold natural rights fails to be a government.”