By GENEVIEVE SUZUKI
Five days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered 46-year-old black American George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes, ignoring Floyd’s pleas for breath, our relatively quiet city of La Mesa, a town mostly known to outsiders for antiquing and its Oktoberfest, made national news.
Demonstrators stood outside the La Mesa Police Department May 30 calling for recognition that Black Lives Matter and an end to police brutality. What began as a peaceful protest slowly morphed into something else, however, when individuals set fire to a La Mesa Fire Department vehicle, vandalizing the police department and an LMPD armored car. At around 6 p.m., police fired pepper balls and tear gas into the crowd to try to quell the growing chaos.
By nightfall, La Mesa wasn’t so quiet anymore as a different kind of upset hit the town. Rioters and looters ravaged La Mesa Village, setting fire to the Chase and Union banks on Spring Street and burning down the Randall Lamb buildings. They looted local stores and defaced city buildings.
As my family and I watched everything unfold for hours on the local TV news, we heard the police helicopter flying overhead. It’s a sound I’d be happy to never hear again as the chopper flew above well into the night, even as we finally fell asleep at around midnight.
The next morning, I woke bleary-eyed and spent. As I scrolled through the comments on the Facebook La Mesa Happenings page, I saw that local realtor Laurie MacDonald, a friend and the president of La Mesa Park & Recreation Foundation, had posted an invitation to everyone to meet downtown at 9 a.m. to help clean up.
Ordinarily, I would have immediately gotten dressed, no questions asked. But these are not ordinary times. No, friends, they’re quite extraordinary.
See, like most La Mesans, we have been sheltering in place since our children were sent home from school March 13. Because, in addition to the social pandemic that rebirthed a movement for change, we are also trying to survive Covid-19, which has, at print, killed more than 120,000 Americans.
I wanted to go, but I also wanted to keep my family safe from a virus we still don’t understand.
I walked into my 11-year-old daughter’s room to tell her about my dilemma.
“We have to go,” Quinn said, simply. “Let’s go.”
As a parent, there are moments where you think, “Wow, I’m proud of this kid.” This was one such moment. Quinn didn’t waffle. She wanted to join the community clean-up, because La Mesa is our city. It’s our community, where we live and work. I opened my office here. My kids go to school here. We shop for groceries here. We go to church here. La Mesa is here for us and we needed to be there for it.
As we drove into downtown, face masks and garbage bags packed, we realized we were already late. It was only 9 a.m., but people had begun cleaning up more than an hour before. Determined to show up, we parked in front of the La Mesa Fire Department and headed toward the Village.
Along the way, we found Laurie’s sister, Tracy Giordano, and her daughter, Bella. We couldn’t hug, thanks to social distancing, but we shared looks, grateful we were there together. Tracy and her husband, Gabe, whose family has been in La Mesa for generations, helped get us painting a wall in the parking lot in front of the police department. We met a couple there, Dan and Chelsea, who painted alongside us. Wish I could tell you I would recognize them if I saw them again, but the masks that covered half their faces guaranteed anonymity.
By the time we left a couple of hours later, Quinn and I felt better. The night before was frightening, but the morning brought reassurance of better days.
But there’s still so much more work to do. In the days that followed Floyd’s death, people are having vital conversations. Learning black parents teach their sons how to behave around the police so they aren’t unfairly targeted is heartbreaking. The statistics are astounding. There’s so much many of us don’t know or understand, but we need to start listening to our black brothers and sisters to figure out how to unwind the knots of oppression.
Change is never easy, but we need to take steps. The May 31 community effort assures me we can do it when we show up and work together.
— Genevieve Suzuki is a family law attorney and former editor of the La Mesa Courier.