by Amy Reichert
A year has passed since the La Mesa riots of May 30 into the early morning hours of May 31, 2020. As I think about that time and the days since, I wanted to share my story and some reflections.
First, a disclaimer…
I watched George Floyd die with absolute horror and despair. Not only did I feel something break inside me, I felt something broke in our country. I know you did too.
To those that might say or think I care more about the riots than the loss of human life…
I say, I am perfectly capable of multitasking deep and profound sorrow. In 1998, I lost my 56-year-old dad and my newborn daughter within five weeks of one another. I simultaneously mourned them both. As a country we can also mourn for both racial injustice and the destruction of small businesses.
Trigger warning. If there is one point to my writing this piece, it is this: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Here’s my story…
Three days before the riots in La Mesa began, my husband and son left for a camping trip 10 hours away in Arizona. After three straight months of lockdown and lots of “family together time,” honestly, I looked forward to a little mama time.
God used that time with me while I was alone and I am grateful now even if I could not see it then.
On Saturday morning, May 30, for no reason at all, I took a breathtaking solo drive up Pacific Coast Highway while listening on my car radio to the SpaceX countdown and successful launch from the Kennedy Space Center with awe, hope and wonder.
As I drove back home to La Mesa down the 101 freeway, an emergency text came through NIXLE with a public safety alert. The alert said there was a protest near the freeway exit to my home and to avoid the area. I quickly ignored it and thought, “I’ll just take a different way” as I returned my gaze to the Pacific Ocean on my right.
After arriving home later that Saturday night, I was still enjoying my alone time when a friend posted on Facebook…
“La Mesa City Hall is on fire!”
Then another friend posted…
“A Fire Battalion Chief’s vehicle is in flames!”
Another post… “They are setting fire to the library now!”
I quickly searched and found a Facebook Livestream of the riots in progress. A violent crowd of hundreds of people in real-time were bashing the windows and looting the stores of the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center, just two miles from my home.
It wasn’t just any shopping center. The church I called home had just bought a notorious bar, the old Jolt’n Joe’s, and was in the process of building a new church home there.
That’s when I noticed the pounding beat of the multiple helicopters flying overhead, an ominous continuous drumming that lasted 24 hours a day for the next five days straight.
Livestreams give you a surreal view of the world. You are there, but you aren’t really there. It’s like watching a movie but you are in it and it is all around you.
Because I saw crimes in progress, I did what any normal person would do. I called 911. A soft-spoken male dispatcher answered and he apologized that the police could not respond, it was just too dangerous.
I felt powerless. That’s when I got down on my knees and prayed.
What I saw on the livestream wasn’t just the destruction of buildings and businesses, but the celebration of destruction that poisoned the smoke-filled air.
I saw things I can’t unsee and I heard things I can’t unhear.
The looters and rioters were young and from all races, mostly about 14 to 21 years old. I believe that because of extended lockdowns, the riots were inevitable.
Teenage kids who had lost their classmates, their sports, their teachers, and their coaches. Kids who had been trapped in homes for three months, forced onto Zooms while living with stressed-out parents 24 hours a day just trying to survive. They looted the La Mesa Vons of alcohol and Doritos and had their very own anti-lockdown party in a shopping mall parking lot that was live streamed around the world.
A friend who was there during the day said everything was peaceful. People from all walks of life exercised their constitutional right to assemble and their freedom of speech. The peaceful protestors left when the riot began. In the words of my friend who was there, “Something changed, you could feel it in the air.”
However, when people say things like, “Riots are the voices of the unheard,” or “It was just some milk that was stolen,” we as a country are in big trouble. There is no excuse for violence against people or property.
Why should a small business that was shut down by the government due to COVID lockdowns, only to recently reopen, have their windows bashed in and their livelihoods destroyed? Why should that business be the victim?
What if that business is minority-owned? If anyone thinks violence against innocent people and property and the destruction of someone’s small business is going to make anyone more sympathetic to their “message,” they are wrong…and they are also morally wrong.
Who will decide those having the right to riot and those without that right?
Who gets to decide which businesses it is okay to loot and destroy and which ones are not?
Why would I listen to someone holding a bat or a rock or a brick aimed at an innocent person? Violence directed at people or property is never the answer.
The gasoline that fueled this riot in La Mesa was extended lockdowns. The match was social media, cable TV news, celebrities, racial division, national fear, rage, anger and the tragic national event, played over and over and over, of George Floyd dying in the street as he took his last breath.
As the summer of 2020 showed, every town in America is just one viral video away from rioting.
Those in the wrong
When La Mesa Police Officer Matthew Dages pushed Amaurie Johnson, the officer was in the wrong. I say this as someone who is pro-law enforcement and as a graduate of the Chula Vista Citizen’s Police Academy.
There are others also who were in the wrong.
We all remember how politicians and the media went from claiming…
“People who go to the beach are super-spreaders-selfish-granny-killers!”…
To those same politicians and media praising, encouraging, and excusing rioting and violence. Yes, there were things I saw and heard that night that I cannot unsee and I cannot unhear.
That night of the La Mesa riots I witnessed two men on a livestream light a fire inside a building while chanting, “We won the first Civil War and we will win the second!”
Then they screamed, “Kill All White People!!!”
That’s when I felt something break in me and felt something in our nation broke and shattered too.
As helicopters continued to beat overhead, I finally fell asleep before 4 a.m.
Two hours later I awoke and it was Sunday morning. I wanted to believe the night before was just a nightmare and I went straight to my car.
As I drove into the heart of La Mesa, it was still the in-between time separating night from morning. There were a few stragglers from the night before. One police car started tailing me as I made my way into the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center.
Every single shop in the center was bashed in. There was glass, debris and trash everywhere. On the side of the Vons, graffiti was scrawled with ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards).
“We’ll be back!”
The church I attended was spared.
You see, at the church there were not any pickings for the taking for the crowds that had previously rifled clean the nearby Sally’s Beauty Supply of nail polish remover, eyelash curlers, and $1 lipsticks.
I kept driving to the historic Randall Lamb Building past the burned out cars alongside City Hall.
It was still engulfed in flames and so was the Chase Bank and the Union Bank. Standing in the center of three still burning buildings, I began my Facebook Livestream.
An Asian woman in her 60s started walking toward the smoldering Chase Bank building dangerously close to the drive-thru teller overhang which was still in flames.
I yelled to her, “Watch out! That overhang will collapse on you!”
She turned to me, dazed and confused, and said, “My safe deposit box is in there with everything I own,” and then she broke down in tears.
As I left, I noticed a young Black man holding a handwritten sign that read, “This is a spiritual battle.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Every night after the riots, the helicopters continued to beat overhead as the emergency text alerts came to my phone exclaiming:
“Curfew tonight at 6 p.m. due to EXTREME peril to persons & property!”
Over 100 National Guardsmen came to La Mesa for the first time in its 108 year history.
My friend, who is Black, is a San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy. He was assigned to guard the San Diego County Administration building along with fellow deputies the night after the La Mesa riots.
He told me how rioters attempted to burn him and his fellow deputies from outside the building while the arsonists knew they were inside.
You know those rumors you heard last summer about the riots being organized and coordinated?
They are true.
The riots were not random and they were not spontaneous.
A law enforcement source told me that piles of rocks were dropped off in advance at 1600 Pacific Highway and were thrown at the building. Also dropped off were BBQ tongs and boxes of milk. The BBQ tongs are used to pick up tear gas containers so they can be thrown back at law enforcement. Milk is used as a remedy for the eyes when it is exposed to pepper spray.
“Many of the people who were arrested were not from San Diego,” my contact said. “Rioters were bused in and paid $300 each.”
Knowing this, I prayed that God would soften my heart and that I would not be angry or fearful or unforgiving towards the rioters.
The day after the riots, thousands of people descended on the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center to restore hope and to repair a wounded city. The same Vons parking lot, filled with destruction the night before, was completely replaced by numerous churches and charities that came together in hope and unity to repair and restore. Store owners who had their stores wiped out by looting served food and drinks to the volunteers pouring into the city to help it heal. May we continue to heal…
La Mesa Strong.
Four days after the riots, tensions were getting worse. During a press conference, one activist mocked the people of La Mesa for their slogan, “La Mesa Strong,” and mocked the people who came out to clean up. He even said, “People were upset because their precious Vons had some milk stolen.” Then he implied the entire City of La Mesa and it’s residents are racists and said people who were upset about what happened in the community were “crying fake crocodile tears.”
After four days of helicopters 24/7, National Guard occupation and now someone mocking the people of La Mesa, I decided I needed to get away. My husband had our suitcase so I threw everything I needed in plastic grocery bags and fled the state.
Gaining some perspective and moving forward
I made the 10 hour drive alone with my Airedale Terrier as my co-pilot in a 12-year-old car that didn’t have air conditioning. Yes, you need air conditioning in Arizona.
I called some friends while I drove.
My first call was to my friend Liz, a White woman married to a Black man. When I was a single mom, she, her husband, her daughter and my son and I shared a cabin in Big Bear. One morning when we were renting skis, the clerk saw us and started singing under his breath, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” I knew what the racist clerk was trying to do. I was horrified and I did everything I could so their young daughter would not hear him. I made sure my friends, a bi-racial couple, would not hear the clerk either.
I called Lisa to ask her perspective and how she and her husband have experienced racism. She said that when people see her Black husband, they grab their purses and lock their car doors. By the way, my friend’s husband is an Athletic Director for a California University and a man who loves people, his family and God. It makes me incredibly sad that he has experienced such racism and prejudice.
Then I called my friend Kim. She and I served in ministry together every Sunday as single moms. She is Black and works for the Federal government. Her son and I share a birthday and every year make a big deal out of it. I asked for her experiences as a Black woman during this time of crisis in our country. She said there are significant issues that we as a country need to deal with regarding the police and the Black community.
My next call was to my friend LaShawnna, who I met after she lost her baby, a boy, during her sixth month of pregnancy. We bonded as friends because we knew each other’s deepest sorrow, the loss of a child. I asked her what her experience has been like in the military as a Black woman. She has been personally discriminated against and she is concerned for the future of her only child, her adult daughter.
My next call was to my friend Charlene. She and I went to the same High School, but 10 years apart. As adults, we met at church. We would go on long walks and we became good friends. She hosted my bridal shower and her daughter asked me to baptize her when she was 17. Charlene sometimes prays over her husband while he is standing in the driveway of their home before he goes to work. Her husband is a bank vice president and her prayer is he will not be the victim of an illegal police traffic stop.
When I arrived in the mountains of Arizona I saw my face in the rear view mirror. It was etched in grief and sorrow for my friends, my community, and my country.
And when I came back to California, I vowed I would never flee again. One day while standing in my kitchen I felt depressed and realized that it was because I felt powerless. I asked God, “I know I am supposed to do something, I just don’t know what to do, show me what to do.”
That’s when I got involved with ReOpenSD.org to do my part to fight for reopening of schools, for reopening of businesses and, yes, for forgiveness.