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Looting hits La Mesa after George Floyd protest turns violent

Sheriff's deputies take up positions at an entrance to the La Mesa Police Department where more than 1,000 protesters held a demonstration Saturday.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Demonstrators called for justice for George Floyd and a man recently detained by La Mesa police but later turned into a volatile standoff with police

A protest calling for police reform and racial justice began peacefully in La Mesa on Saturday, but as night fell it had escalated into riots with the city center resembling a combat zone.

Some demonstrators launched rocks and bottles at police vehicles while law enforcement officers in riot gear deployed flash-bang and shot chemical irritants into the crowd that continued to gather in front of the Police Department, which had been defaced with anti-police slurs.

Shortly before 8 p.m., a fire burned inside La Mesa City Hall, and outside La Mesa’s American Legion Post 282 people lit a U.S. flag on fire and ran it up the pole. In a parking lot nearby, two trucks were engulfed in flames.

The action mimics several others around the nation as outrage continues to swell over the Memorial Day in-custody death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

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Rioters breached several businesses in a nearby Vons shopping center and set a Vons truck ablaze. Later, smoke filled the inside of the store while people carried out products such as pool toys, diapers, flowers and liquor.

Stolen bouquets were placed beneath a makeshift memorial with the words “RIP Floyd” spray-painted on the wall above.

Looters emerged from neighboring Play it Again Sports with surfboards, bicycles and fishing poles. The store’s owner, Dan Buxton, and an employee tried to stop the looting.

Nearby, people smashed an ATM outside the California Coast Credit Union while others milled about inside.

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Kneeling on the curb amid the unrest was the Rev. Travis Fergusonof Christ Lutheran across the street, who said he was praying for the protesters, police and looters.

The looters carried on unhindered until about 10:30 p.m., when law enforcement officers suddenly advanced on the shopping center, quickly clearing out the area.

Chase bank in downtown La Mesa burns unchecked during Saturday's riot.
(Andrew Dyer / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some rioters moved on to a Chase bank in downtown La Mesa, setting the building ablaze. The fire burned unchecked inside, no firefighters in sight. Moments later, Union Bank next door was engulfed as well.

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Meanwhile, scores of police surrounded Fashion Valley mall in case threats that people would storm the shopping center turned out to be valid.

The protest had started peacefully around 2 p.m. with a crowd of about 1,000 people.

Demonstrators stand near a city building that was set on fire.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“If you normally watch this on TV, this is not the time to do that. You have to do something different,” Brittny Ferguson of Point Loma, an African American mother, said earlier in the day. She brought her daughter and young son to the La Mesa protest. “And I think creating actions like this, participating in a protest like this, that’s what’s going to do it. When it comes to police brutality ... this is one of those steps that we have to take — collectively.”

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Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck for almost 10 minutes. A bystander caught the encounter on video. In it, a handcuffed Floyd, whose face was pushed down into the ground, could be heard repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe.

On Saturday, black demonstrators marched alongside people of other races, including whites, Asians and Latinos. Most wore black clothes and chanted phrases that have come to symbolize the movement: “I can’t breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “George Floyd, say his name.”

Protesters started in front of La Mesa Police Department, then took over University Avenue before being stopped by California Highway Patrol officers who spread out across the freeway entrance at Baltimore Drive.

After a tense 15-minute standoff on a bridge, the protesters broke through the line. Video footage from a media helicopter showed a brief shoving match between a handful of front-line protesters and officers before the crowd pushed past.

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The marchers spilled onto the eastbound freeway lanes as the CHP tried to quickly stop traffic. Some marchers also stepped into oncoming westbound traffic, dodging slow-moving cars.

Sheriff's deputies take up positions at an entrance to the La Mesa Police Department
Sheriff’s deputies take up positions at an entrance to the La Mesa Police Department where more than 1,000 protesters gathered Saturday.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

By 4 p.m., many protesters were walking back to their vehicles while some held their positions on the interstate, which was shut down in both directions for hours.

Meanwhile, hundreds refused to leave the La Mesa police station. Graffiti scrawled on the building’s walls said "[Expletive] police” and “BLM” for Black Lives Matter. Similar phrases were painted on the side of CHP cars on the freeway onramp.

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Starting around 6 p.m., police began deploying what appeared to be pepper balls and tear gas to try to disperse a large crowd that had gathered around the police headquarters and appeared to be growing.

Some demonstrators hurled rocks, paint and water bottles at an armored vehicle parked nearby. The vehicle was driven from the area. Video shown by NBC 7 San Diego showed thick smoke rising from near the building. Several windows had been broken.

At 6:30 p.m., the police station was ringed by law enforcement reinforcements carrying batons and wearing helmets. More black-and-white vehicles from agencies around the county staged on streets and blocked freeway ramps nearby.

Shortly before 7 p.m., a police helicopter flying over the area used a loud speaker to tell the crowd that the demonstration had been declared an unlawful gathering and that if people didn’t disperse they would be arrested.

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Protesters calling for justice for George Floyd are temporarily blocked by CHP officers from accessing anonramp to Interstate 8.
Protesters calling for justice for George Floyd are temporarily blocked by CHP officers from accessing an onramp to Interstate 8. The group eventually broke through and marched on the freeway.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

At 8 p.m., a large volley of tear gas from the station scattered the group gathered out front. At the same time, a dozen or so police vehicles descended on the area from nearby streets in what appeared to be a planned operation.

With the parking lot on the south side of the station emptied out, police and sheriff’s deputies advanced, moving off the front of the station and into the parking lot where protesters had been.

Later, the confrontation moved to the street, with officers firing less-lethal rounds at protesters taunting them across the road.

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Ethan Kilgore was hit with tear gas while he and a line of other white protesters faced off with officers in front of the station.

“We weren’t advancing or anything,” said a shoeless, visibly shaken Kilgore, who was on his knees as water dripped down his face.

He said he saw officers on the roof of the station begin shooting gas and rubber bullets toward the crowd.

In Mission Valley, police flooded the perimeter of Fashion Valley mall to defend it from potential looters.

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Bernard Lebel, the 32-year-old owner of California Sock Co. in Fashion Valley mall, gathered his point-of-sale systems, cash register draws and removed all valuable items from his windows before locking up for the night and leaving.

He estimated 100 police cars had arrived, with several barricading entrances. Two helicopters circled overhead.

He had heard protesters were telling the crowd over loudspeakers to move to the mall.

By 7:30 p.m., when Lebel left the property, he said no protesters were on site.

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Lebel said the activity was hard to digest, considering the turmoil his business has been through during the pandemic.

“After all this...” Lebel said, trailing off.

La Mesa City Councilwoman Dr. Akilah Weber posted on Twitter and Facebook on Saturday evening: “My Fellow La Mesans — This has been a very difficult week for many of us. As an African American female and mother of two boys, I understand the pain and frustration that many feel at this time.

“I appreciate those who voiced their concerns peacefully last night and earlier this afternoon in La Mesa. I want to encourage everyone to exercise their right to be heard in a peaceful manner, without violence, vandalism or damage to our city. I am confident that working together as a community we will emerge from this stronger.

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Protesters on Saturday began their demonstration in front of the La Mesa Police Department.
Protesters on Saturday began their demonstration in front of the La Mesa Police Department. The group eventually marched along the nearby streets and gained access to Interstate 8, where they temporarily closed off traffic in both directions.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

La Mesa Councilwoman Kristine Alessio responded in a text message to the unrest: “My only statement is that I’m just so sad for La Mesa, for our country.”

La Mesa was chosen for the location of the protest to call attention to the detention of a black man Wednesday that has also sparked outrage. Protesters are calling for the officer involved, who is white, to be held accountable for his actions.

The city said it is launching an outside investigation into the incident. A six-minute video of the encounter at the Grossmont Transit Center circulated on social media. The man was arrested on suspicion of assaulting an officer, an accusation the man denies in the video.

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“I felt that emotions are pouring high with everyone,” KC Short, who organized the march, said earlier in the afternoon. “More than anything I wanted to bring all races to come together and speak out about the injustices we see every day now. It’s really sad that we have to do that, but it’s 2020 and all of us need to have our voices be heard.”

Desmond Collins of La Mesa, 55, said he doesn’t usually participate in protests. But this one was important.

“Just seeing George Floyd get killed like that, it almost brought me to tears, and I’m not an emotional guy,” said Collins, who is black. “Even if he was shoplifting, it didn’t warrant a death sentence. I’m so tired of seeing young black men’s lives not meaning a thing in this country.

“Nothing is going to change until all lives are valued the same, until every life matters.”

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Veronica Fox, a La Mesa psychologist, was among the many white protesters marching in solidarity.

“We need to all come out and represent that we care about each other and we care about their lives and we care about their children and we care about their cities and we care about their jobs,” she said. “This is important. Because the way of thinking that is spreading around that [white people] don’t care is not right. It’s not true.”

Earlier Saturday, a smaller protest took on the same issues.

About 75 vehicles drove in a caravan from Liberty Station to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s neighborhood in Point Loma, driving up and down streets near his home with horns blaring and hazard lights flashing.

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The peaceful car rally, with about 100 participants who practiced social distancing, was to show solidarity for Floyd and also to renew the call for an end to police use of the carotid restraint in San Diego.

The technique involves using an arm to put pressure on the sides of a person’s neck to cause the person to quickly lose consciousness. It can cause serious injury or death if used improperly.

“We’ve been fighting this issue since 2017 in San Diego — the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ campaign — and it falls of deaf ears of the mayor, it falls on deaf ears of the chief of police and it falls on deaf ears of the City Council,” said organizer Yusef Miller of the Racial Justice Coalition. “We’re trying to avoid a George Floyd in San Diego.”

The move was under department review last year. The department updated its policy on the move but decided not to prohibit its use. Police officials have said they’ve used the move safely hundreds of times in recent years and that it can help de-escalate situations before there’s a need for deadlier force.

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On Wednesday, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit responded to the Floyd incident on Twitter: “The SDPD expresses its sincere condolences to the family of George Floyd. Our profession must do better. We will continue to work tirelessly to build trust, establish clear policies, ensure consistent training, and maintain open and honest dialogue with our communities.”

Union-Tribune staff writers Karen Kucher, Wendy Fry and Brittany Meiling contributed to this report.

Updates:

1:15 AM, May. 31, 2020: This story was updated with additional details.

1:12 AM, May. 31, 2020: This story has been updated with additional details.


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