By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
The last few weeks will undoubtedly be viewed as some of the most troubled in the city of La Mesa’s history. A perfect storm of events caused millions of dollars in damage to the city and local businesses; one protester to lose part of her vision; another protester to be arrested and charged in federal court; the police department to be accused of racism; and the city to be fractured along political, social and racial lines. At the same time, the events brought hundreds of La Mesa residents together to clean up, rebuild and reform the city’s policing practices.
A protest turns into a riot
On Friday, May 29, La Mesa saw its first protest against its police department since a 2018 incident at Helix High School where an officer was filmed apparently throwing a handcuffed 17-year-old Black student to the ground. (That incident was ultimately resolved on June 11 of this year with the city agreeing to pay the woman $130,000.)
The Friday protests, which drew about 100 mostly local residents, was in response to a May 27 incident caught on video between LMPD Officer Matt Dages and a young Black man at the Grossmont Trolley Station, which ended in the young man arrested for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer — charges that were later dropped.
With the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis sparking nationwide protests and the media attention from the Grossmont Trolley incident, a much larger protest was planned for La Mesa on Saturday, May 30. Protesters — initially a few hundred, but eventually numbering over a thousand — gathered at the LMPD station and City Hall before taking to the streets and shutting down a section of Interstate 8.
Witness accounts about how and when serious trouble began vary, but an official LMPD incident report on the protest released on June 9 said that around 4 p.m. there were “reports coming in that protests are morphing into violence and destruction.” By nightfall, protesters at City Hall were met with pepper spray and beanbag guns and police were met with rocks and other thrown projectiles. Offices in City Hall were broken into and vandalized and several vehicles were set on fire. One protester, 59-year-old Leslie Furcron of La Mesa, was shot with a beanbag and taken to a hospital in a coma. She has since been released from the hospital but has lost sight in one of her eyes.
From there, chaos spread to other parts of the city as rioters and looters took advantage of the situation and fires were set at multiple buildings in the downtown Village. In the midst of the chaos, LMPD arrested 28-year-old Zachary Alexander Karas of San Diego after being found in possession of glass bottles with wicks filled with gasoline. Karas now faces federal charges for possession of an unregistered destructive device that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
In the early hours of May 31, City Manager Greg Humora, acting as Director of Emergency and Disaster, declared a curfew. The protests finally subsided a few hours later.
Community responds, rebuilds
The next morning, Sunday May 31, residents began cleaning up the damage caused by the rioting and looting. Throughout the day, more and more people joined the effort as word spread through social media about the extent of the damage to businesses in the Village and the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center.
As the several hundred La Mesans painted over graffiti, swept broken glass, and helped business owners with boarding up broken windows or picking up merchandise, firefighters were still working to put out the last smoldering embers alight in the now destroyed Chase Bank, Union Bank and Randall Lamb buildings.
In the days and weeks that followed, local artists took paint to the plywood sheets that cover broken windows and created art with messages of peace and unity, many showing solidarity with the Black community and protests over the deaths of George Floyd and others at the hands of police. Those temporary art pieces are now coming down, thanks to the generosity of La Mesa Glass, which has offered to donate its services and replace broken windows. As for the painted boards, several local organizations and churches have expressed a desire to maintain and display them for their historical and educational value.
All told, the damage done in the city will likely total in the tens of millions of dollars. To that end, the La Mesa community also quickly responded. A GoFundMe page started by East County Chamber of Commerce Foundation exceeded its goal of $50,000 in a matter of hours and currently has raised over $199,000. The La Mesa Chamber of Commerce also has its own business assistance fund, which has attracted donors like the Lions Club of La Mesa ($2,000), The Phair Company ($1,000) and Randall Lamb Associates, who’s building was destroyed by fire on May 30, but still donated $5,000 to help fellow La Mesa businesses that were damaged or robbed. A GoFundMe for one such store that was robbed, Crazy Fred’s Cards and Comics, has raised over $25,000 — well above its $5,000 goal.
In the days and weeks following the protest and riot, the city and LMPD worked to restore order. A mandatory curfew went into effect throughout the city. The police ramped up investigations into the looting and vandalism — of particular interest are robberies of a jewelry store and a firearms store. LMPD is asking the public to come forth with any information involving crimes committed during the protest.
On the evening of June 3, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore requested National Guard assistance for San Diego County and specifically La Mesa. Guard troops were stationed around City Hall for four days, leaving the evening of June 7.
There have been no reported instances of rioting or looting since the May 30 protest, but for many days after, rumors of a second, more violent protest were shared on social media. In this atmosphere, a local group formed calling itself “La Mesa Civil Defense.” After the group’s formation was reported by the Times of San Diego, some residents applauded the group for volunteering to protect the city, others saw it as a mostly-white vigilante group that will further divide the city.
At a LMPD press conference to discuss the incident report held June 9, Chief Walt Vasquez said his department does “not condone or encourage any type of vigilantism.”
LMPD also sent officers to speak with the group to inform members what they can and cannot do under the law, Vasquez said.
Reform efforts continued
While groups like La Mesa Civil Defense believe increased patrolling is the answer to keeping the public safe, other groups have focused on police reforms. At the June 9 press conference, Mayor Mark Arapostathis announced that work on proposed citizen oversight of LMPD would resume.
“Someone said to me, ‘I just want to get past this.’ I said, ‘No, we’re never going to get past this. It’s always going to be part of our narrative. But hopefully it can be a benchmark on how we move forward,’” he said.
On June 17, the Citizen Public Safety Oversight Task Force met for the first time since the protests. The task force was initially approved by City Council following the Helix High incident in 2018, but after the events of May 30, the group found new urgency in completing its work.
Task force vice chair Jack Shu proposed an aggressive timeline to make its recommendations to City Council by the end of July so that a proposal could be added to the November ballot. Having voters decide on the task force’s recommended plan is necessary because La Mesa is a general law city, which carries some obstacles to citizen oversight of police unless approved by voters. One obstacle to oversight involves an oversight commission’s ability to subpoena officers to testify — a wishlist item for reformers that is generally opposed by police officers associations. Shu also recommended presenting a dual proposal to City Council that will work within the general law framework in case voters reject the ballot initiative.
Task force chair Jamal McRae stressed the importance of implementing citizen oversight by pointing out that La Mesa has recently “made the national news three times” over aggressive policing.
On June 23, City Council narrowly passed the task force recommendation to put a proposal on the ballot, with Council members Colin Parent, Akilah Weber and Mayor Arapostathis voting in favor of the plan and Council members Kristine Alessio and Bill Baber opposing it.
The Council voted unanimously to remove some impediments to the task force’s ability to present a report and recommendations quickly, and also provided $50,000 from the budget to pay the City Attorney to help with legal questions and other staff support. The task force report is now expected to be presented to City Council in September.
Although the Council will have to wait for September and voters until November to weigh in on how much public oversight LMPD will have in the future, some reforms have already been enacted.
On June 3, La Mesa Police Department and 14 other law enforcement agencies in San Diego County announced they would ban officers from using carotid restrain chokeholds — the kind that killed George Floyd.
At the June 9 LMPD press conference, Chief Vasquez recognized that further steps need to be taken to win back public trust of police.
“I think that unfortunately nationwide the trust in police departments, especially starting with the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, I think the trust has been impacted,” he said. “It’s impacted all of us. I can’t even watch that video. It was criminal. So I think every police department in this nation is looking into their souls and trying to figure out how to build that trust back up and La Mesa Police Department will build that trust back up. We will. That’s our responsibility. That’s our commitment.”
For some, that trust is still a long way off. At a June 14 protest organized by Black Lives Matter in front of La Mesa Police Station, activists called for the firing of Officer Dages and for LMPD to release the name of the officer who shot the beanbag at Leslie Furcron. Other “non-negotiable” demands included a town hall meeting for the public to voice concerns and complaints about policing in La Mesa.
The June 14 protest drew several hundred people and remained peaceful throughout.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.