La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis on civil defense group

Friday afternoon, several dozen people met at a boarded-up corner on La Mesa Boulevard to discuss how they might help a fledgling La Mesa Civil Defense group.

Some wore yellow vests as they listened to local attorney Scott McMillan, the leader of a private Facebook group who had summoned them to nearby Swami’s Cafe.

One man wore a T-shirt proclaiming “Black Guns Matter.”

But McMillan was emphatic.

“If there’s any danger, get the hell out of there. Do not risk your safety,” he told the group. “If there’s more of them than you. ….  We don’t have a badge. We don’t have a gun.”

La Mesa attorney Scott McMillan leads a discussion of La Mesa Civil Defense volunteers near Swami’s Cafe on June 5. Photo by Times of San Diego

Earlier on Facebook, McMillan posted: “We aren’t going to be engaging targets. Our job is presence and de-escalation. In the business district. No Rambo stuff.”

McMillan repeated the “presence and de-escalation” mantra at the Friday meetup — ahead of a feared repeat of the previous weekend’s mayhem that saw two La Mesa banks burn to the ground and a historic Palm Avenue building torched as well.

Last weekend was quiet, however.

Downtown Village business owners and others have grown McMillan’s Facebook group to more than 400 since its founding the Monday after the rioting that followed a mostly peaceful protest at the La Mesa Police Department.

Debate over the group has raged on the larger (12,000 members) of the two La Mesa Happenings pages. And Tuesday, La Mesa’s mayor weighed in.

Though he said he’d never seen the group, Mayor Mark Arapostathis repeated three times: “The city of La Mesa doesn’t support vigilantes at all.”

McMillan’s reaction?

“I don’t support vigilantes either,” he said via email. “La Mesa Civil Defense does not support vigilantes either.”

A boarded-up business in La Mesa’s downtown Village was backdrop for La Mesa Civil Defense’s first in-person meeting. Photo by Times of San Diego

He defined vigilante as “a person who is not a member of law enforcement but who pursues and punishes persons suspected of lawbreaking,” “a member of a vigilante committee” or “a person who considers it their own responsibility to uphold the law in their neighborhood.”

Said McMillan: “We are none of the above.”

But contrary to McMillan’s admonitions — and the group’s stated rules — several members introduced themselves to the group as armed and ready.

CC wrote: “Ex-Military, Riot Squad trained, CPR, First Aid, Good Marksman.”

AN wrote: “Currently serving in the Navy. Gunner’s Mate 1st Class. Gun enthusiast,
anti-terrorism training, marksmanship training, willing to defend people and
[property].”

KH wrote that he helped board up businesses that Sunday and learned from a couple that several people had been out front with concealed weapons.

After asserting that marijuana shops aren’t looted because they post armed guards, a member whose initials are TL wrote: “Can we encourage business owners to post armed guards? How would we do that? Maybe the Sherrif can grant special permits for them to do that.”

And JRD said he worked at a police equipment shop in Kearny Mesa.

“If anyone wants to come purchase some OC (pepper spray) we are open M-F 10-6 I have 3 sizes I can sell to civilians,” he wrote. “I’ll post pictures and prices when I get to work later.”

Over the weekend, yellow-vested volunteers were a presence in the downtown Village — La Mesa Boulevard mainly between Spring Street (the site of the bank burnings) and Allison Avenue (which leads to the Civic Center).

DD wrote in La Mesa Happenings, where 365 comments were posted on the issue: “I was downtown eating, saw them walking around and [they] seem like normal nice people just trying to help.”

YW wrote that she was a member of the Civil Defense group, “and there’s nothing but caring people in it.”

MP said: “I feel a group like this could be amazing for our community with proper leadership, training and police partnership. Similar to the CERT team.”

And BH added: “Most police themselves acknowledge they can’t be everywhere all the time. … Citizens on patrol, R.S.V.P. and Neighborhood Watch groups have been around for more than 50 years. They aren’t all vigilante groups.”

But DM replied: “We already have a civil defense group. It’s called the police force.”

And MS didn’t mince words: “This sounds like a terrible idea. A bunch of untrained trigger-happy right wingers patrolling our streets? It would be a matter of days before some innocent person was shot.”

McMillan — who gained national attention in March with a tweet (now deleted) suggesting the elderly could be sacrificed to save the economy because they were expensive to maintain and “not productive” — responded to some questions about the group Tuesday and not others.

He insisted the group is not a “defense force.” 

“We wear yellow vests and stand on street corners,” he said. “We are kind and friendly to everyone.”

McMillan rejected concerns that “gung-ho” volunteers, such as the military members, couldn’t be controlled.

“Did you see such a ‘gung ho’ person in a yellow vest?” he asked. “Just because you are on the site does not make you a ‘member.’”

McMillan was asked about his series of posts on jury instructions defining justifiable homicide and rights of property defense.

“There was a lot misinformation going around regarding the right to self-defense, and the right to defense of property,” he wrote. “California jury instructions clarify the legal responsibilities.”

He also pushed back against fears that “militant Santee/Lakeside residents” were infiltrating his group.

“Do you suggest that I kick off Santee/Lakeside residents just because of where they live?” he asked. “The Santee/Lakeside folks have their own group, we have ours,” referring to the Facebook group Defend East County.  “We have a very specific mission of Presence and De-Escalation.”  

The day before the Friday meetup, McMillan responded to many new group members with “Please join us at Swami’s in the Village at 5 pm tomorrow for our first meeting!”

But he didn’t push back against members introducing themselves as expert marksmen or military ready to serve.

Scott McMillan stressed “presence and de-escalation” were the main tactics of La Mesa Civil Defense. Photo by Times of San Diego

McMillan explained: “Our rules … are very specific about discouraging the carrying of firearms in the yellow vest, even if the person is entitled to carry one with a permit. … I don’t remember seeing that anyone going to the meeting who indicated that they intended to bring a firearm.”

Had a person indicated a plan to be armed without permit, McMillan said, “I would have told them to either leave their firearm at home or don’t show up.”

He said two police detectives attended the meeting, “and they were certainly armed. If someone is legally entitled to carry a firearm in public, such as LEO or CCW holder, there is no reason why they should take off their firearm for just the meeting.” 

(The two officers said they were just there to observe, learn about the group and report back to their superiors. They both declined McMillan’s invitation to speak.)

He defined La Mesa Civil Defense members as “those that have actually put on a yellow vest and walked” in contrast with Facebook group members who lurk “for entertainment purposes.”

Formal members, and the Facebook group itself, he said, “do not fall within the dictionary description of vigilantes or a vigilante group.”

McMillan didn’t respond to Times of San Diego questions about why Councilwoman Kristine Alessio was no longer listed as a group administrator and who told him “informally” that La Mesa police appreciated his efforts.

Also left blank:

  • Why was Naomi Israel (an organizer of Freedom Rallies to reopen California) made an admin?
  • Have you contacted anyone at City Hall or the police about your group?
  • And why did you post a question asking if La Mesa should hire a private security force?

A woman with initials SW said McMillan advertised his group on a Nextdoor message board.

She replied in part: “Scott, I understand that you want more eyes on the streets and businesses, and I do believe that people should protect their own property, however, I feel less safe with vigilante justice.

“You may say self study in de-escalation technique, but who could truly hold people accountable? You already have one member using this site to advertise your group that is attempting to speak for all ‘Neighborhood Watch Captains,’ which is absolutely false. If you can’t control this person on social media, how could you control him out on our streets?”

At the Friday meetup, McMillan wore his own yellow vest and told the group: “The police to some extent are relying on us — because they’re not going to be able to do everything.”

A man named Mark asked some police present* as observers if they welcomed the group’s help. “Don’t want to put you on the spot,” Mark said in apology.

“I will definitely take your sentiments back and pass it along,” an officer replied.

The group stood around for an hour and discussed how they’d communicate with each other. Radios and frequencies were mentioned. McMillan urged use of Snapchat. Linda Hayes was tasked with creating an email Listserve.

A woman suggested: “Do a group text.”

McMillan replied: “I don’t know how to do that.” 

With a La Mesa police officer observing, a volunteer with La Mesa Civil Defense adds his own view at Friday afternoon meetup on La Mesa Boulevard. Photo by Times of San Diego

Late Tuesday, a member of La Mesa Civil Defense on Facebook wrote Times of San Diego: “I just came across another post from Scott requesting that the members be on patrol this coming weekend as well…. I find it very concerning. La Mesa has not seen another day or night of violence since May 31. This group is not needed.

“In fact, the sight of a bunch of intimidating rednecks ‘making their presence known’ in our calm, family-oriented village truly makes me sick.”

McMillan posted: “If you don’t have a yellow vest, I have a dozen L/XL that will be handed out. We will be announcing the meeting place on the group chat. If you have a radio, bring it along as well. If not, don’t worry.”

The so-called Walk-about La Mesa event will be an “enjoyable time and an opportunity to meet your neighbors,” he said. “Good exercise as we walk all over La Mesa. You will see things that you might not have noticed before. We are ambassadors of goodwill for La Mesa and we are showing Presence to those that might have an eye on our village area.”

On Facebook, TH said sarcastically: “Shall we take a real ‘vigilante’ group photo? Armed to the teeth with water balloons and squirt guns!!??”

Updated at 7:52 a.m. June 10, 2020.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said McMillan was asked about police support.

La Mesa Civil Defense event page for this weekend’s “Walk-about La Mesa” (PDF)
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