By Ken StoneMore than 160 people including a La Mesa councilwoman and former councilman have joined a new Facebook group that aims to stand up a force to deter looters and arsonists. But one member fears vigilantism.
“Let’s get organized by next Friday night,” Scott McMillan wrote. “That is when the next round of tomfoolery will begin. Let’s plan on them and their scouts determining that we are not a soft target and they just move on through.”
He made Councilwoman Kristine Alessio an administrator of the closed group, which was briefly named “La Mesa Night Watch.” She helped set up an email network.
At Alessio’s invitation, former Councilman Guy McWhirter also joined.
“I joined because this weekend’s activity indicated a need to have our citizens have a group that we can reach out to others in the event of major emergencies,” McWhirter said. “Earthquakes, fires, etc.”
He said La Mesa police and firefighters do a fabulous job but can be overwhelmed. Indeed, a citywide curfew was declared from 7 p.m. Tuesday to 5:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The group’s public description is: “La Mesa community-based organization to provide emergency assistance to residents and businesses during riots and natural disasters. Auxiliary to police, fire and emergency medical responders. No political discussion. No gossip. Just service.”
But in a phone interview Tuesday, McMillan, 56, said the group hasn’t contacted La Mesa police or Heartland Fire & Rescue.
“We haven’t started deciding whether we’re going to work with the authorities,” he said. “It may be something that’s just ad hoc. But we’re not just going to sit back and have our businesses looted again. Or [see] people assaulted and beaten and taken to the hospital.”
A La Mesan who joined the group but asked that their name not be disclosed told Times of San Diego via email that “I … am saddened by the brutality that has occurred by the police, and I am also horrified by the looting and destruction of our town.”
But the member added: “I have seen many posts from social media over the years and heard directly from nonwhite residents that they do not feel welcome in La Mesa, even before the protests for George Floyd.
“I am concerned that mostly white vigilante groups like La Mesa Civil Defense will target nonwhite people and further divide our community. I have seen horrible and racist social media posts from several members of La Mesa Civil Defense.”
The member concluded: “These are the last people I would want ‘protecting’ our town. If these vigilantes are armed, we will likely see more violence. This is not the way to move forward and we need our elected officials to condemn these groups! I am frightened for what may happen.”
A group administrator, who asked that his name not be used, posted: “No hateful or racist comments allowed, or tolerated. If you spew hate, you will be removed from the group. … All colors of people are welcome, and any hate towards another color will not be tolerated.”
McMillan stressed that members decry the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd “or anybody else that was a victim of police misconduct or police abuse. … But we’re not going to have our businesses ruined or looted, our people robbed or people beaten.”
He said he provided medical care to a young woman who interrupted somebody trying to start a fire at La Mesa’s historic train depot.
(Meanwhile, a post by Galactic Comics shop owner David Draize on the 3,800-member OB Neighborhood Watch Facebook group suggested a similar defense force for Ocean Beach: “Please no debate commenting. Pm me, we can assign community protection patrol stations and mobilize within 1 hr to protect Newport/Voltaire/Bacon.”)
McMillan declined to say whether local business owners carried firearms late Saturday night and early Sunday when four local structures were burned to the ground, including the Union and Chase bank branches on Spring Street.
Videos posted on Facebook by Caleb Boynton made reference to about 10 armed people defending businesses in the downtown Village area, keeping looters at bay.
McMillan, an El Cajon resident, was at his office near Nebo Drive and Lemon Avenue and declined to discuss the people deterring looters over the weekend.
“I don’t know that I want to talk about it other than we basically don’t want our town to get burned to the ground — as people have threatened to do,” he said. “We’re planning on standing in front of stores and trying to convince people not to do that, which seems to have been effective where it happened.”
He said his group has posted videos on de-escalation techniques.
Indeed, Alessio — who didn’t respond to requests for comment — posted after 5 p.m. Tuesday: “Okay tonight are expecting things might be rough. The key for us is being smart and de-escalate when possible. The entire [City] Council knows about us and really doesn’t mind that we’re doing it, but they ask we use restraint. Be vigilant and careful.”
The group also stipulates:
“This is not a forum for discussion of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. California law allows the carrying and use of a firearm in certain circumstances. If you choose to carry a firearm, that will be your responsibility for complying with the laws. Do not assume you are going to need, let alone use, a firearm. Posts about shooting anyone will be deleted and you will be removed.”
La Mesa city officials including Police Chief Walt Vasquez didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither has the Heartland Fire and Rescue Department.
But Councilwoman Akilah Weber, who wasn’t aware of the group until contacted, said: “I will speak with Alessio this afternoon when we meet.”
The first mention of armed La Mesans seeking to ward off vandals was made Sunday in a column that appeared on San Diego Jewish World.
Eric George Tauber recounted a conversation he overheard that a handful of La Mesa residents “took it upon themselves to protect their community from the rioters.”
According to Tauber, Boynton said: “So last night, when it started, we all went home and regrouped. Maybe 20, 30 minutes after it all started, we slowly started to gather at each one of our locations and tried to protect it.”
Were you armed? Tauber asked.
“Absolutely,” Boynton told him. “We had guns, knives, bats, everything.”
Tauber said Boynton told him that early vandals weren’t looking for fights.
“So it was nice,” Boynton said. “If you were physically standing in front of your building, they wouldn’t take action. They would show up and turn around.”
Boynton called it a “bummer” that enough people weren’t available to stand in front of every location.
“But when they burned down the [Randall Lamb] architecture building, the tide changed and I got worried. There was a mood where it almost got to violence might happen,” Boynton was quoted as saying.
“That’s when two shots happened and there’s two ammo bullets in the side of Farm Table,” he said, referring to the Farmer’s Table restaurant. “We stayed out until about 3:30 listening to police scanners. We heard about breaking and entering.”
Boynton said about 10-15 defenders “ran down there armed and chased them out of there. We walked around until about 3:45 walking the neighborhood, shining lights on cars and chased them out of the neighborhood.”
Among the members of the Facebook group is Elaine Maisen, whose LinkedIn profile lists herself as a dispatcher for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. She posted: “Pillagers do not like to have to do actual work. Lazier than I am, unless I am confronted with a crisis!”
On Monday night, Maisen also posted: “I have to chuckle because most of the ‘action’ took place west of Spring. Will change into my dispatcher attire and see if I can walk up to Spring at 10 pm.”
She posted a link to a story headlined “WATCH: Philadelphia Residents Patrol Streets With Baseball Bats.”
Maisen commented: “Hmmm, it seems that other neighborhoods have similar ideas, with the blessing of their local police dept.”
Monica Munoz, spokeswoman for San Diego Fire-Rescue, reviewed posts shared by Times of San Diego and said: “There is no indication that this group is armed. There is nothing disparaging or negative in the posts.”
Asked for his reaction to the civil defense group, Michael Schwartz of San Diego County Gun Owners PAC said: “California law does not support using lethal force to protect property.”
But Schwartz, executive director of the Second Amendment rights group, added a statement made public earlier: “No matter who you identify with, all sides agree that safety and security are important. That is why our group promotes making effective self-defense tools (firearms) available to sane, trained, law-abiding people, and we do it every day.”
The statement concluded: “SDCGO hopes everyone gets back to their loved ones, tonight and every night, safely and soundly. Your life is precious and that is the foundation on which all our advocacy is built. We will continue our advocacy because it is impossible to predict when you will need to defend the most important thing on the planet: your life.”
Councilwoman Alessio, who changed party affiliation in 2017 from Republican to no party preference, said in a Facebook post that she wasn’t a fan of President Trump, “but this crap has to stop!”
Updated at 1:30 a.m. June 3, 2020
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