Written by Eric Bartl
“When Jesus shows up the atmosphere changes”
The destructive fervor of hundreds of rioters who ransacked downtown La Mesa last weekend fizzled in Santee on Sunday, despite nearly a thousand protesters. In stark contrast to La Mesa’s anti-police protest on May 30, the Santee protest was free of violence.
During the preceding week, a smaller group of protesters gathered at the corner of Mission Gorge Road and Cuyamaca Street each day. On Tuesday, one protester held a sign that read, “We are not Antifa.” She explained that “we’re not here to cause chaos. We’re just here to say ‘black lives matter’. If Antifa is going to cause rioting while we’re peacefully protesting, call them what they are.” I asked, ‘Terrorists’? She nodded in agreement, and added, “They’re not welcome here.”
Counter-rioters organized “Defend East County,” a grassroots neighborhood watch movement. One member stood across the street from protesters on Thursday, holding a sign that read, “free hugs.” She said, “I’m a patriot but I don’t believe in violence.” She walked across the street and offered a group hug. Most protesters were glad to give her one, but she said that one organizer told her to go back to her corner.
There were reports from last weekend that some protesters were threatened and attacked by a few East County thugs. But what I saw during the week was Defend East County members staying away from protesters and keeping watch over stores.
Thursday evening, a group of Christians joined the protesters. Just before the 7 p.m. curfew, Santee Mayor John Minto joined them as they held hands to pray. On Friday, the protest vanished. In their place, Brooke Farmer and her friends stood on the corner preaching about Jesus, singing worship songs and praying to God to protect Santee.
“When Jesus shows up, the atmosphere changes. We’re releasing a sound of peace, love and joy. God sends the praisers out before the walls tumble down, like Jericho,” she said. “Jesus died for every person, even the ones who are out looting and starting fires. They’re led by the dark spirit of this world, not the spirit of Christ, which is what they need.”
On Sunday, as I walked toward the oncoming front line of protesters as they marched south on Cuyamaca, a protester yelled to me, “You’re too quiet!” He pointed his finger at me, as if to rile up the crowd, and yelled, “He’s too quiet!” But they weren’t feeling it and ignored him. Every other person standing by taking pictures was chanting with the crowd and raising fists or cheering for them.
I saw a white protester pass a black deputy sheriff, turn her head and scream toward him, “F— pigs!” The massive crowd stopped in front of the Santee sheriff station, continuing to protest and shout “Hands up don’t shoot.” A man driving by yelled, “Shoot ‘em with pepper balls!”
As a small group of Christians played worship music behind the crowd, a woman preached through a megaphone, “We love you. Jesus loves you. He loves every single life. Every single life matters…God is a God of justice and peace.” When she added, “We love our cops and we love you too,” a howl went up from nearby protesters.
Some turned around to express anger and began moving towards her, but crowd control within the protest quickly turned them back around. A man with a camera walked up to the preacher, lowered his face in front of hers and said, “F— you.” Another protester gave her a flower. Then a line of people wearing white with ‘RN’ on their shirts filed in front of the Christian group.
Deputy sheriffs in riot gear staged a massive presence, but they stayed out of sight behind their station. Border Patrol guarded their flanks, and Highway Patrol had a heavy presence on highway ramps. In the end, there was no stampede to the highway and no attack on the sheriff’s station.
After a time of silence, protesters returned north on Cuyamaca to the YMCA parking lot off Riverwalk Drive. It ended with a dance party instead of a riot. A man holding a microphone and pushing a stereo in a shopping cart walked down the street urging protesters, “You want to keep protesting head out to McDonald’s in Hillcrest. They ain’t got no curfew. Let’s keep this peaceful.”
A small remnant of protesters had jumped out of the march and stayed in the town center shopping area, where a riot attempt was expected. When they gathered in front of Target dozens of deputy sheriffs flocked to the scene and formed a line in front of the store. A woman wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt used a megaphone to urge the group of adolescents to back up and go home. Little by little the crowd fizzled away. Most businesses in the area spent last week boarding up their windows. Nevertheless, not a single window was broken.
Members of La Mesa Civil Defense, formed after the riot, tell me things stayed quiet this weekend. Though not as intimidating as the bearded men patrolling Santee in giant pickup trucks, the smiling yellow vest-wearing citizens say they are just as resolute to defend their town.
Tareq Asfour says police shot him in the head with a rubber bullet while covering last weekend’s protest for a local newspaper, showing me his cut and swollen eyebrow. “They were shooting everybody with a camera,” he said. He also complained about police leaving townsfolk to fend for themselves during the riot. There are reports of women taking on rioters by themselves to protect their treasured buildings.
Mitch Arnold credits La Mesa Wine and Spirits personnel with stopping the domino effect of arsons that spread from Chase Bank to Union Bank and the Randall Lamb building. He says men guarded the store entrance and repelled each attempt rioters made to get inside. He believes all of downtown La Mesa would have otherwise burned.
As we finished speaking, a resident rode up on his bicycle and asked how he could join up.
At a June 3 press conference about the questionable arrest of a black man that brought protesters to La Mesa, people yelled multiple angry questions at city leaders. One reporter asked about the civilian defense effort, as if it were disgusting.
“They are defending with fire hoses and fire extinguishers. Every resident and business owner has a right to know when things are going wrong and have fire extinguishers,” said La Mesa City Councilwoman Kristine Alessio. “And if you have a problem with that I think there’s something wrong with you.”
Former Democratic San Diego Mayoral candidate Tasha Williamson, a community organizer heavily involved in Black Lives Matter protests, yelled to La Mesa City Councilwoman Akilah Weber, “You hear us now because your city burned down.” The day before La Mesa was attacked Williamson posted a quote to Facebook about riots being a way people are heard. She posted, “Riots will continue to happen as long as cities all over this nation resist holding police accountable.”
At the press conference, the audience howled at a reporter for asking Williamson about the fact that protesters used violence before police used force.
Williamson said, “I’m tired of white people asking me to be the one to hold on your shoulders your ignorance… I don’t care about the burning down of a bank. I don’t care about graffiti. I don’t care if they broke windows. I don’t care if they vandalized. No property damage is worth Leslie [an elderly woman seriously injured by a beanbag round after she called for rioters to burn down the police station and threw a can toward police] being shot in the middle of her eyes… Until you correct these wrongs that your white people and your white system has, do not come to us and ask us to play nice.”
The San Diego chapter of Black Lives Matter has called for the defunding and abolition of police. National Guard troops added an extra deterrence to any further rioting. From Thursday to Sunday they camped out in the police station parking lot with barricades set up in all directions.
Muralists also joined the community effort and turned a devastated La Mesa Springs shopping center and La Mesa Blvd. into an art exhibit. Symbols of peace replaced images of war, and the face of George Floyd now covers a destroyed Beauty College storefront.