Fire truck on fire.
I was late to the protest in La Mesa on Saturday night. I hadn’t intended to go at all — what could I possibly add that social media and TV news would not have covered? But I stopped by the Vons a little after 8:30, found it was closed, and noticed the “Fuck 12 pigs” tag on the brick wall at the northwest corner of the parking lot. I walked up Allison, checking the many tags: besides “Fuck pigs,” the most common were “Black Lives Matter,” “ACAB,” and George Floyd’s unheeded plea, “I can’t breathe.” I arrived in time to see the last of the windows shatter on the Heartland Fire & Rescue pickup truck parked outside City Hall, and to see a group of young men set it on fire and pose for selfies in front of the conflagration.
Mavry reasons with the opposition as police look on.
Air Force veteran and current SDSU student Chris Mavry was not late to the protest. By the time I spoke with him at a little before 9 pm, he had been there for six hours, trying to keep the peace. I found him on Date Street, walking the no-man’s-land between the line of silent sentries in riot gear guarding the Police Station and the angry crowd in the parking lot across the street. The protestors shouted: “Learn to love something, you hateful motherfuckers!” “You love to hide behind your masks and your guns and your badges; fuck all of you!” “You shot a woman between the eyes, assholes!” (The aftermath of that incident, which involved a bean-bag bullet, can be seen on the YouTube channel of California Citizen Watch.) Also this: “Why are you pointing your gun? Shoot me, bro! What the fuck!” At that, Mavry faced the police, raised his megaphone, and led the crowd in a chant of, “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
“Whenever the police start shooting, I stand in front of them,” Mavry told me, “because I know they probably won’t shoot me. I’m not inciting violence, and I’m wearing this” — his camouflage Air Force shirt. “If I’m out in front, it keeps the danger off [the protestors]. We just gotta check each other, make sure violence isn’t happening on both sides. I make sure our bad apples are talked to. If someone’s throwing rocks, I tell them, ‘Hey, that’s not we’re about right now.’”
As he paced north and south on Date, Mavry talked to the cops over his megaphone: “My fellow Americans, I just want to remind you about a few of your fellow Americans we have lost. Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor. I don’t want to be here. I’m tired, bra; I’m so tired. But I’m more tired of seeing my people killed on the nightly news. So I got to be out here. We don’t want to be your conscience. We shouldn’t have to tell you that it’s wrong to kill a man. But when you love somebody, you’re gonna let them know when what they’re doing is wrong. We love you enough to tell you that you can do better. No man deserves to die in the street like an animal. That’s not what I fought for.”
Outside the La Mesa Springs shopping center
He stopped his address to hustle over to a flare-up along University. “Hey brother, that’s not what we’re here for!” he called to the California Citizen Watch reporter, who was shouting at a man and a woman standing in front of the police: “Fuck you, bootlicker!” over and over. Then Mavry addressed the man: “Hey how you doing? I’m Chris, a fellow American. You know they’re killing Americans on the street right now?”
“You’re telling me they’re going apeshit right now?” asked the man, incredulous.
“Who’s dead right now?” asked the woman. “You’re in La Mesa.”
“My brothers and sisters are doing some bad shit,” admitted Mavry. “But we callin’ out ours.”
“Are you, though?” asked the woman.
“We are,” replied Mavry. “I been doing that all night. I served in the Air Force for seven years, three combat tours.”
“Thank you,” interrupted the man, quite sincerely.
“And I sleep at night knowing my baby might die tomorrow for no reason other than the color of their skin. All we’re here to do tonight is protest these ideals that our country stands for.”
The morning aftermath.
“There’s a difference between a protest and a riot,” said the woman.
In the end, Mavry couldn’t possibly check his. There were too many of them, and they were too inflamed, their shouts of rage giving way to whoops of glee at their own destructive power. (“There’s something on fucking fire, bro!”) They burned a Vons delivery truck, and a second car on Allison. As I walked back to my own car in the Vons parking lot, someone hollered, “Who wants takeout?” The mob was looting Panda Express — and the beauty supply shop, and Vons. A woman held a red flower in the foreground as she took a picture of looters emerging from the smoky grocery store, laden with beer and booze. Someone else had stolen armfuls of baseball bats from Play it Again Sports and was passing them out. The mob put them to use on the shopping center windows. I headed home, but not before I heard someone shout, “Grossmont Center next!”
Sunday morning, I drove past the burned out husk of Randall Lamb engineering on Palm, and the two banks on Spring Street that had been torched the previous evening. I visited the mall and saw the broken-out windows of the Starbucks inside Target. There were more broken windows at the nearby BevMo — apparently, the bad apples had been thirsty. Still, Mavry had done his part, keeping the violence in check as he walked his self-appointed rounds. “Part of me didn’t want to come,” he told me. “You know it’s not going to be the best of humanity, on both sides. But if somebody doesn’t take a leadership position and say, ‘It’s about this, not that,’ who will? I don’t know how I’m doing it; it just came alive inside of me. I don’t want anybody else’s children to die — theirs, ours, whoever.”