By Chris Stone
On Saturday night, artist Spenser Little saw a young man throwing rocks during the social justice protest in the parking lot of the La Mesa Police Department.
Little says he talked to the man, trying to de-escalate his actions. The man wept and told the artist about his uncle who had just been deported by Immigrant and Customs Enforcement and how hurt he was.
“This issue is much bigger than just this one incident that happened in Minneapolis or at the Grossmont Trolley Station,” said Little, born in El Cajon and now living in Barrio Logan. “This is about a systemic racism of the entire American society and the oppression of people for generations.”
But he found a way to make another contribution to the community.
He gathered other artists who would beautify a shopping center badly damaged after an afternoon of mostly peaceful protests.
“So I wanted a way to lift the spirits and also brighten the facades of the buildings so when the locals walk by and saw that plywood, they wouldn’t just think about violence,” said the 43-year-old wire sculptor.
“They would think about a little of humanity mixed in,” said Little, who has a studio in Little Italy.
Most of the 15 artists that Little matched with store owners in the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center on La Mesa Boulevard also took part in the afternoon and early evening protest that spread from the La Mesa Police Department building to Interstate 8.
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Other than a George Floyd portrait, the artwork isn’t political.
Little and his sister, University of San Diego professor Megan Little, have matched 12 artists with five businesses in the shopping center and in the downtown La Mesa Village.
Megan Little said they prioritized small business owners whose windows were smashed by looters rather than businesses that put up plywood as a preventive measure.
Little and his fellow artists — donating their time and materials — said they see their art in the same vein as their social activism. They both help the community and show their connection to the area.
Artist Jonny Alexander, who grew up in La Mesa, says he has intimate memories of the shopping center as he dined there with his family.
He was painting a mural on a side wall of Albert’s Fresh Mexican Food, where he has been eating since he was young.
“I find it just as important for me to show up to the protest as it is for me to show up now and let people know that I can do both,” he said.
“We’re not so militant,” said the 31-year-old artist who has been painting public murals for eight years. “It’s a protest that is trying to gain equality, which we having been fighting for for years.”
Speaking of the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest across the country, Alexander said: “The less that I am crippled by the fear of the change that is going on, the more I feel confident about being motivated and proactive.”
Another artist, Lourans Mikhail, 40, said the art project is all about community.
“The change has to start with everyone,” said Mikhail, who was born in Iraq, lived in Chicago, and was in the U.S. Marine Corps for 13 years. He said he served so that everyone could be equal and have a voice.
“Race is a myth, but racism is real,” he said.
Business owners are pleased with the beautification.
Janelle Clay of Postal Annex admires the “La Mesa Strong. We’re open” painting on the plywood in front of her store.
“I think it is wonderful and cheery,” she said. “Everyone loves it and it’s uplifting. I’m excited that they are doing it.”
Protests began in La Mesa on Friday night following the death of George Floyd after a Minnesota police officer kneeled on his neck while he was handcuffed. In addition, 23-year-old Amaurie Johnson was detained near the Grossmont Transit Center last Thursday on suspicion of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, which Johnson denies.
Johnson named Officer Matt Dages as the arresting officer.
Little is critical of the La Mesa Police Department’s handling of Saturday’s protest.
“People wanted to express their grievances and they wanted some kind of outreach and accountability from the La Mesa Police Department,” the artist said.
Instead protesters were met with tear gas, pepper balls and beanbag projectiles.
“So what we are seeing is the outrage of those issues not being addressed,” said Little, who was standing near grandmother Leslie Furcron when she was struck between her eyes by a beanbag projectile.
Little asserts that he saw the police officer who aimed at her. (La Mesa police on Wednesday said they know the officer’s identity but didn’t release it, pending an investigation.)
What will become of the artwork as new glass is put in?
Artists will have input as to whether the store owners keep the artwork or if it will be auctioned off for a fund to help small businesses.
La Mesa Village Association is expected to continue the project as the Littles return to their careers. Spenser Little said he has donated as least 50 hours of his time so far.
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