Resilience Hundreds of volunteers descend on downtown La Mesa to clean streets and sidewalks after a night of destruction caused by riots and looting

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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.

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.

At the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center volunteers clear out merchandise from Play it Again Sports.
A man cleans graffiti from a shopping cart corral in the Vons parking lot.

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.

Volunteers walked up and down the sidewalk in The La Mesa Village with cleaning supplies after rioting had damaged stores and banks.

“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.”