By JEFF CLEMETSON
A year to the date after a protest-turned-riot in the Downtown Village brought issues of racism to the forefront in La Mesa, city leaders, representatives, community groups and more gathered to talk about the lessons of the past year and listen to Black voices about ways to move forward in healing a divided community. “La Mesa’s Day of Remembrance: Building Our World with Love & Compassion” was hosted by La Mesa Conversations, Envision La Mesa and held on May 30 at La Mesa First United Methodist Church.
Rev. Christian DeMent emceed the event and set the tone by sharing a story from the Gospel of John Chapter 3 about Nicodemus meeting Jesus and trying to define who Jesus was in front of him.
“The problem was, Nicodemus came to Jesus with answers, not questions, seeking to tell Jesus’ story rather than listen to him tell his own,” he said. “I believe one of the challenges we face today as individuals and as a community is that we believe that we have all the answers — that we have, in fact, stopped asking enough questions.”
DeMent shared his own story about growing up in La Mesa and how that affected his perceptions of the city and community.
“By living here all my life, I believed that I understood everything about La Mesa … but maybe I realized that with what happened last year, that I didn’t fully understand all of La Mesa,” he said, adding that he now strives to ask more questions and listen more.
“Five local churches gather on Zoom on a weekly basis right now for a program called Dialogues on Race, where we practice telling our own stories and listening to others,” he added.
California Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber was the first speaker to share her story. Weber is the daughter of sharecroppers from Hope, Arkansas who left the town under threat of lynching for “fighting for what was right and just.” She said her family found hope in California because “there was no hope for African Americans in Hope in 1951.”
“So I stand here as a daughter of a sharecropper who understood what the impact of racism, the lack of opportunity, the inability to vote all meant in a person’s life,” she said.
Weber credited her father for understanding that California offered better opportunities for her and her siblings before briefly listing some of her accomplishments those opportunities granted her, including the multiple degrees from the University of California she earned that helped springboard her into a successful career as a public servant in the Assembly and now as California’s Secretary of State, adding that she now feels “indebted to California to restore the greatness back to all Californians in terms of their vision and dream for their children.”
Weber cited that sense of indebtedness as a reason for her relentless combating of racism throughout her career.
“One of the things one of my students asked me some years ago at San Diego State, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of fighting?’ And I said, ‘The alternative to not doing anything, that is much too great and we have to be vigilant in what we do.’”
“What I have said in the Assembly year after year is that love and inclusion and peace and justice and freedom is a rare flower that demands from us constant attention,” she said. “But hatred, discrimination, exclusion is a weed and it grows best in neglect.”
Weber’s daughter, Assembly member and former La Mesa City Council member Dr. Akilah Weber, followed and shared her thoughts on the day that roiled the city.
“It started off a very promising day because we had a protest that was actually very peaceful that came so people could make sure their voices were heard and unfortunately later on that evening that very promising peaceful protest turned into a lot of pain when we saw our city being destroyed, our businesses vandalized by people who came in with a very different purpose,” she said. “But because of who we are as La Mesans, we turned pain into a new purpose and by the next day we were up helping each other and making sure we told our story of who La Mesa is and who the residents are.”
Akilah Weber said the city has done much in the past year to address why the protesters came to La Mesa and that the city will strive to do even more and become “an example of how people can work, play and live together in a diverse community and that everyone’s voice is heard and that everyone feels comfortable telling their story.”
“I look forward to making sure people know the real La Mesa that we will not be defined by one incident but that we will define who we are and who are city is for ourselves,” she added.
Mayor Mark Arapostathis spoke next and shared how his single mother raised him to “be accepting of everyone and not to judge.”
“And that’s how she ran her classrooms and as I became a teacher and … helped start La Mesa Arts Academy … it was with the intent that using the arts to teach these lessons because we tell our students, ‘Everyone is vulnerable. We are all vulnerable for different reasons and so we need to treat everyone with respect with inclusion and we need to reach unity,” he said, adding that students at the school grasp the concept and often share their bewilderment at cruelty in the world.
“A 9-year-old fourth grader will say, ‘Why doesn’t everyone just be kind?,’” he said. “And as an adult I don’t have a reason for that. I don’t know how to answer that question except to say, ‘You’re absolutely right. Start growing up and figure this out so you can save the world.’”
Arapostathis said the riot is something the city will never forget.
“This is going to be the seminal point in La Mesa’s history and the line is going to be drawn from there — how we react to this, not how we react the next day, the next month, the next year, but how the history of this city unfolds as we move forward,” he said. “And that event should be used as a roadmap on how this can happen when feel disillusioned, when there is no unity and everyone is not included.”
Janet Castellanos read a statement from artist Lauren Miller who helped organize the effort to paint the plywood boards that covered broken windows of businesses following the riots.
“We worked as a team to make beauty where there was destruction,” Miller wrote. “We came out stronger, more resilient and added just a little more beauty to the world, so let’s continue. What are your gifts and how can you make La Mesa better?”
Helix graduate and current Howard University student Asia Duncan contributed a video spoken word poem “I’m Ready For My Independence Day.” While at Helix, Duncan was a part of Movement Be, a program that encourages youth to tell their story to challenge the status quo that was founded by the day’s keynote speaker, Nate Howard, when he was a student there.
Howard’s presentation was a mix of storytelling, inspirational speaking and spoken word poetry touching on issues of prejudice, identity and stereotypes and how they lead to inequality — all themes in his book “Tell Your Story Before They Do.”
“Who is ‘they?’ You see, that’s the battle we’re struggling with here is ‘who is they? Who are we fighting?’” he said.
Howard shared his story about growing up in La Mesa and attending Helix where he faced a community that was in disbelief that he was a smart, studious Black teen.
“The stereotypes against me were, ‘How did you get in this class? Aren’t you supposed to be playing a sport? Aren’t you supposed to be in this neighborhood?’” he said.
Howard broke those stereotypes by excelling in AP classes at Helix before becoming a first-generation college graduate from the University of California, where he again experienced racism and stereotyping.
“Getting ready to graduate I was reminded that I would have all that academic accomplishments, that I could succeed, but the issues of racism would still be here — that I would get my B.A. but I would still be a target,” he said.
Howard then explained that before his graduation he organized a party, complete with security, that was registered with the school and attended by mostly Black students. Another party was held across the street with mostly white students.
“Officers came to shut my party down, but told the house across the street to stay in the house and be safe. Seventy-nine LAPD officers showed up to my house in riot gear. They made a barricade on my street, 23rd and Hoover down the street from USC. I was arrested days before my graduation, in the back of this police car, reminded of the stereotype that I was trying to defeat,” he said.
Howard said racism like the kind he experienced at USC doesn’t have to be overt, but without representation in a community, it has to be asked whether racism is an underlying factor when issues arise that involve the Black community.
“We have to speak to the truth or the result is what we get from last year — people who are frustrated and angry asking for respect and representation but feeling that they’re not getting it,” he said.
In response to his own question of who ‘they’ is, Howard posited that ultimately figuring that out is less important that it is to tell your own story — or to “just be” — and that that should be people’s focus because “when they have understanding of who they are, we can work together to build better communities.”
“At the end of the day we all want the same thing: to be loved, to love, to be around our family and our friends and to support. And when we can have to courage to do that. We realize the story of those who have been supportive of us all along,” he said.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.