San Diegos BLM protests

San Diego’s BLM Protests

Is this a turning point in America? It is a question being asked more and more as people reel from the combined effects of a pandemic, a broken economy and unrest in streets across the country. You can never answer that question in the present; only history will determine if this is a point of major societal change. Those who have been around long enough or study history agree that it certainly feels that way though.

A key point in this modern day social brew is the cell phone camera. Never in history did people have the ability to record and share the images of everyday life in our communities in real time, and the past few months yielded jarring images for all to see. We first saw frightened doctors and nurses caring for dying patients without adequate physical protection from the deadly virus they were fighting.

Photo by Orin Louis @pacificreverie

Dozens of these highly trained and critical health care workers became ill and even succumbed from Covid-19 as a direct result of our failure to provide them with the protective gear they needed.

Mere weeks later we saw thousands of cops in many of those same cities outfitted with the latest and greatest in cutting edge riot gear and low impact weaponry purchased at great public cost to be used against its purchasers.

In the days following the very public killing of George Floyd, demonstrations erupted all over the country and throughout San Diego County. All were brimming with energy, but most were peaceful and orderly. It was far from intuitive that the most destructive one locally would be in La Mesa just as it was far from intuitive that the spark that lit the national powder keg in the United States would occur in Minneapolis.

But the larger truth both locally and nationally is that it could have happened anywhere. All that was required was one more cop assaulting one more black man, and it happened in both of those cities. The camel’s back could literally not carry one more straw.

On Wednesday, May 27, two days after George Floyd was killed, the metaphorical trigger was pulled in La Mesa by a police officer who is still nameless but is currently on paid administrative leave. In the course of a six-minute video filmed at the Grossmont Transit Center, the officer twice pushed a black man named Amaurie Johnson whom he is questioning into a sitting position before ultimately cuffing him and placing him under arrest for assault against a police officer.

While Johnson was irate and verbally abusive to the officer, he claimed to be merely been waiting for a friend and was shown breaking no laws. On June 5, the police department announced that after a full review, it had determined that no charges would be filed against Johnson.

The video was widely shared on social media, and two days later the protests exploded into violence in on the streets of La Mesa. The protest began in the parking lot of the police department but by late afternoon protestors were blocking Interstate 8 in both directions. Before things settled down in La Mesa, two banks and multiple businesses had burned.

Much of the local action was captured on video by an independenthotojournalist named Orin Louis. He attended two of the San Diego protests and observed protestors throwing water bottles into police ranks. He noted that in response,

“….police would immediately light up the crowd with projectiles, explosives, and tear gas. If you look through my photos, you can see many instances of police dodging plastic water bottles. It seems fair to them to return with near-lethal fire.”

Louis, who has covered protests around the world, went on to describe contrasts he has observed in other countries. “I was at multiple protests in Albania (a Muslim, third-world country) last year, and I recorded a lot of video and got some sweet photos, too. They’re on my FB. The police there were infinitely more patient as protesters hurled firework after firework at them.

It’s as if they police understood that their job is sometimes to receive the public’s angst and not by not returning fire, that is what makes them heroes. The bigger person is one who is less afraid, more able to absorb others’ pain without a violent response.”

Photo by Trevor Costello @trevorcostelloe

Louis then described his experience in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country with an authoritarian government. “Last year, I was also in Istanbul, another Muslim country. People held an illegal PRIDE march and the police response was as shameful as it was here last weekend. The uniforms fired paintballs, pepper balls, rubber bullets, beanbags, flash grenades, and tear gas at unarmed citizens, same as they did here.”

He further describes some recent experiences in May rallies in this country by conservative whites who were objecting to local requirements the people wear face masks in public.

“I photographed three rallies led and unanimously attended by white conservatives upset about having to wear a facial covering, social distancing, and the advent of 5g cellular technology. These protests (two in San Diego, one in Huntington) were during the mandatory lock-downs. Barely attended by police, the uniforms that were there made no arrests. They certainly never fired anything at protesters, who petulantly screamed at police, even though it was not the police they were upset with. I have photos and video of everything.”

Then again he writes, “Last weekend, in San Diego, I only held a camera and my phone and rarely opened my mouth, yet police still sprayed me in the back with pepper balls and paintballs and a rubber bullet to my leg as I ran from their flash grenades (some of which was while I live-streamed – video is public on my FB wall). I filmed people vomiting and crying and begging for air as we all choked in gas clouds.”

“I filmed a grandmother seconds after she was shot between her eyes with a beanbag, the item still stuck in her head as they carried her off. She went into a coma and may not live.

No accountability for the shooter of course. I don’t know if this weekend was the craziest, as I have seen similar scenes play out other places. I can say that it was fucking crazy, especially because it happened here, at home.” Louis concludes with some summary observations about his experiences here.

“I have dealt with PTSD all week and likely will for a long time if not forever. I can list more horrors from here and abroad if you want. You can see some in my photos and video. I hope to forget much of what I saw last weekend in San Diego yet expect to relive much of it in my dreams. I have not been to war. At least in war perhaps we would also be armed.”

If we are not at an inflection point in June of 2020, it at least feels like one. Whites may at long last be at a point where they can feel the pain and fear that blacks carry with them on our streets every day. Perhaps we have all had enough. And for too many of us, the economy that the president describes as “the best the world has ever seen” has not turned out to be good enough for us. We can only hope to be followed by a generation of younger leaders with a different vision of a free and fair society that will prove them wrong.

One step we can all take in the meantime is supporting our local black-owned businesses.  Check out our list of some of our, and the public’s, favorites!

Photos below by Orin Louis of the protests that happened in San Diego May 31st and early June 2020:

I have interviewed a couple other people who were at the La Mesa protest and this is what they had to say:

David Boykin: “Every protest that I’ve gone to that has turned violent was sadly started by the police. They first use intimidation, lining up in riot gear with batons or guns to confront protesters. The initial attack starts with tear-gas and flash grenades. Which causes the crowd to turn and run, putting everyone in danger. There’s usually some sort of retaliation from some protesters, usually the throwing of a water bottle. This then gives officers the green light to start shooting rubber bullets into the crowd.”

Trevor Costello: “When I showed up I know there had been some small riots earlier in the day that got broken up and there were about 50-100 peaceful protesters in a group for a good 30 minutes just chanting and protesting. The cops were completely peaceful when all of a sudden they shot rubber bullets and teargas and flashbangs into the crowd and everyone just went running. I believe that was the exact time that poor La Mesa lady got shot in the forehead by police. My friend and I felt the teargas and ran off for a bit until our eyes stopped burning”

Here are two shots of the banks burning taken by Trevor:

We visited the aftermath of the peaceful protests/riots in La Mesa a week later.  Although most business windows are still boarded up, they are being filled with colorful and uplifting messages in support of Black Lives Matter as well as rebuilding the community.

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