A day of mostly peaceful protest Saturday devolved into a night of looting and arson early Sunday in La Mesa, with roving bands of young men smashing windows and eluding police.
Two banks downtown were gutted by fire late Saturday and a nearby Vons market looted hours after police and sheriff’s deputies used tear gas to disperse a crowd of mostly young protesters surrounding the police station. Flash-bang devices caused hundreds to retreat.
The La Mesa Springs Vons market — closed at 8 p.m. — was looted and set ablaze. Nearby businesses were burgled as well, their windows smashed in a long night of vandalism throughout the city’s commercial areas.
A Vons delivery truck and fire department supervisor’s car were torched, and an emergency meeting of the La Mesa City Council set a curfew.
“We are committed to the safety and well-being of all of our citizens,” said a masked Mayor Mark Arapostathis early Sunday, with four other council members standing behind him as he announced a stay-at-home curfew from 1:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. Hundreds ignored it.
After 11 p.m., two banks — a Chase branch and a Union Bank branch — were engulfed in flames on Spring Street. A nearby Goodwill store was broken into. The Sprouts further south was looted, but police kept it from burning.
NBC San Diego showed footage of the Grossmont Center Walmart being looted, and the station reported TVs being carted off before police formed a protective line. Former La Mesa Councilman Barry Jantz reported that the Target on the opposite site of Grossmont Center also was looted.
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North of Grossmont Center, a BevMo liquor store was shown by a 619 News Media reporter as having been broken into — and about to be looted again.
“I’m here to cover, and if I see a crime, I’m going to let law enforcement know about it,” videographer Juan Ruiz said after informing police.
He later livestreamed police outside a GameStop store, south of Grossmont Center, which had been looted as well, and reported remnants of Molotov cocktails — incendiary devices — littering the sidewalk in the downtown Village.
Many business owners stood outside their shops, some armed, to deter any of the small groups of roving men (and sometimes women), Ruiz reported.
On foot, he recorded young men entering Randall Lamb, an engineering consultancy, removing laptops and smashing a wall-mounted Apple TV onto the street. Other demolition continued inside, until cries of “Police!” led them to scatter.
Earlier, San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Andrew Dyer, military beat writer, tweeted: “Just got a couple of bean bags (later corrected to powder balls) to my leg and side, identified myself as press, was told by unknown officer to get out of the way. A protester threw some kind of bottle at the line of officers. I’m wearing a bright orange vest.”
The police response came after hours of impromptu speeches and chants — loud but peaceful — that reflected the anger stirred nationwide by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man.
American flag burned and run up the pole outside La Mesa’s American Legion Post 282 pic.twitter.com/EkaGyjTYPA
— Alex Riggins (@Alex_Riggins) May 31, 2020
An estimated 1,000 protesters blocked Interstate 8 in both directions to demonstrate for a variety of causes after a La Mesa police officer detained a black man earlier this week.
An armored SWAT Lenco BearCat slowly making its way to the La Mesa Police Station — a center of chanting and speech-making — was defaced with white and red paint before beating a careful retreat and being pelted with rocks. A windshield was broken.
A motorist apparently frustrated with a crowd of marchers blocking traffic at University and Baltimore avenues near the police station inched toward a crowd. One young man in his 20s placed his hands on the car and eventually ended up on the hood.
Another young man later was seen having a bloody left hand bandaged. It wasn’t clear what caused the injury, and the man declined to give his name to Times of San Diego as he left the scene.
About 2:30 p.m., the crowd initially took over the La Mesa Police Department parking lot to protest an officer who detained a man at the Grossmont Transit Center Wednesday. The man was arrested on suspicion of assaulting an officer and the encounter was videotaped and appeared on social media.
The protesters chanted “Black lives matter” and carried signs such as “no justice, no peace,” as they marched down University Avenue.
At first, the group was stopped when they tried to get on I-8 at the Baltimore Drive entrance by California Highway Patrol officers. But soon after, the protesters broke through the CHP line and continued marching eastbound on the freeway.
The CHP then halted traffic on I-8 eastbound and when protesters began marching on the westbound side, traffic was then halted on that side of the freeway.
About 4:30 p.m., CHP officers wearing face shields stood in a line across the freeway and squared off with protesters. A protester with a bullhorn appeared to be asking the crowd to back away from the officers, which they did. The protesters then left one side of the freeway and climbed over the center divider to get on the other side.
Across the street from the police station, Old Glory was set afire and run up the pole at American Legion Post 282.
Saturday’s protest follows a Memorial Day incident in Minneapolis when a police officer, Derek Chauvin, was videotaped pinning Floyd to the ground with his knee on his neck, which eventually led to Floyd’s death. Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter on Friday.
Outrage over Floyd’s death built across the country, and many protests have turned into rioting.
La Mesa officials said they are launching an outside investigation into the Wednesday incident.
Watching from a shaded City Hall garden, lifelong San Diegan John Bohrer said he was wondering if San Diego “was going to take a stand.”
“I felt like I should be here,” said the 66-year-old La Mesan. “I didn’t like what happened (in Minneapolis).”
The autobody and paint worker said he’d been to L.A. demonstrations in the 1960s. He brought his 2 1/2-year-old basset hound Lucy to the scene — “her first demonstration.”
RIGHT NOW: People smashing and looting in La Mesa Springs Shopping Center… pic.twitter.com/UtqYBsdkZz
— Ramon Scott (@RamonScottMedia) May 31, 2020
Updated at 4 a.m. May 31, 2020
— City News Service contributed to this report