In Los Angeles protests, most want peace and some want a fight
Looting continues despite some protesters’ pleas and police presence
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Los Angeles Police Department officers stood in the middle of Second Street with helmets on and legs spread apart. With their fingers, some slowly drummed the batons hanging at their waists. The officers obstructed the target of a crowd of protesters: city hall. When it reached the line of police, the crowd chanted, “March with us! March with us!”—a reference to law enforcement officers in other cities displaying solidarity with protesters by bending the knee or marching with them. Many protesters knelt and raised their hands to show that they came in peace.
The officers stared back stone-faced. Some protesters grew irate. One young, wiry black man hopped around. He swung a giant chain around his neck, flexed his muscles, and inched towards the officers to spit vulgarities into their faces. Several protesters jumped in front and waved him off: “Turn around! Turn around! Let’s go! Peaceful protest!”
It was the fifth day of protests in LA over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. It happened after a white police officer pinned a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death—along with other high-profile cases of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and a video of a white woman calling the cops on a black man in Manhattan—have incited both peaceful protests and some violence and looting across the country.
On Saturday, the entire police department mobilized for the first time in more than 20 years. Peaceful protests turned violent: Rioters set fire to at least two police cars and one store, they smashed and looted multiple businesses, and the mayor issued an emergency citywide curfew. Rioters hurt at least six police officers. Police arrested 533 protesters.
On Sunday, many protesters were even more determined to keep the rally as peaceful as possible. One sign read: “I came to protest peacefully. Please don’t shoot!” But downtown illustrated what can happen when high-strung emotions and mixed agendas clash. Most downtown businesses were boarded up. Tiny pieces of glass still twinkled under the sun on the sidewalks. Fresh graffiti marked the walls of the Salvation Army, Starbucks, public benches, low-income apartments, and electrical boxes: “Shoot the police!” “Black Lives Matter!” “HATE KILL DESTROY!” Many in Sunday’s protest strived to maintain peaceful demonstrations and avoid the violence and looting. But some people seemed to want a fight.
By Sunday, everyone was tense. In addition to the police, National Guard troops stood guard on the streets in their camouflage uniforms, carrying rifles. It’s the first time the National Guard has patrolled LA since the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the 1992 race riots, and its presence—and Humvees rolling through neighborhoods— rattled Angelenos.
While most protesters worked hard to keep the group peaceful, a few seemed to provoke violence. It didn’t help when one police SUV drove towards several protesters, knocking one down and almost crushing his foot. Nor did it help that some protesters egged the officers on: They stood in front of the vehicle with both middle fingers up. When the LAPD cruiser nearly rammed them, others screamed. Several rushed toward the car with fists out. The SUV immediately went into reverse, turned, and drove off. I took a video (other media outlets did too), and the LAPD later said it is investigating.
One young black man swung a small black case around the entire afternoon. When I asked what was inside he told me it was a gun: “Please don’t use it,” I said. He looked at me smiled. “You’re not going to use it, are you?” I asked.
“Not unless I got to,” he said. Then in a friendly tone, he assured me, “I won’t use it on you.”
He was also at the protest on Saturday. He showed me the stitches on his chin and the black-and-blue bruises all over his body from rubber bullets. He said Floyd’s death enraged him: “It hurt personally because it can happen to any of us. We can go out one day and never come back.” He doesn’t think the police are there to protect. So if violence erupts, “I’m all in,” he said. “Once they feel it in the economy, then they’ll realize these people’s lives are not to play with.”
Businesses have insurance, he said, so they’ll be fine. But most of the businesses that suffered damage last weekend were mom-and-pop shops whose owners are immigrants and minorities. For this man, though, nothing was more important than vengeance and revolution: “Change will come. By force, yeah. If you can’t make it, you gotta take it.”
But others, at least for that day, kept aggressive people like that man in check. Some joined the protest with signs identifying themselves as medics to help the hurt, and many volunteers showed up in cars to pass out cold water bottles, snacks, and hot pizza.
Others designated themselves peacekeepers for the day, such as Santana Lopez, 25, who urged people to “keep the peace” and “resist the urge.” The weekend’s looters angered her: “From what I’ve seen, it was usually Caucasians starting the breaking, and I think they’re trying to influence us into violence. They’re causing damage, and then people are blaming us.”
The aggression provoked police, and many protesters got hurt in the crossfire. Lopez had been in Fairfax District in Los Angeles Saturday protesting when police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. She lifted her shirt to show me a big bruise on her lower back: “I got shot yesterday for saving someone who got shot in the head.”
Others tried to be peacemakers too. When one man whipped a spray paint can out of his duffle bag and vandalized a public bench, Ricky Woznichak and his friend John Snyder, both 38, admonished him: “Hey! Stop vandalizing!” They made up later with an elbow bump.
“This is not a good look,” Woznichak told me, regarding the vandalism. “I don’t want the wrong people getting blamed.” He and Snyder were both at the protest the day before too, and they left as soon as the police began firing tear gas, which burned their eyes and throats. Snyder showed me the mark on his jeans where a rubber bullet struck his shin. But they were back on the streets again on Sunday with their signs. “We gotta stand up for what we believe in,” Snyder said.
But they too are wary of people they call “plants” and “instigators.” Most protesters Saturday, they said, were peaceful and approached the police with their hands up. But a few had jumped out, thrown something at the police, and ran back to hide behind the peaceful protesters. “We’re not those people so we don’t know [who they are],” Woznichak said. When I asked if they knew who the organizers of these protests are, they both shrugged. “The internet?” Woznichak said. “Who knows?”
By the time the protesters walked a roundabout route and crossed Grand Park to reach city hall, a few black men designated themselves as the leaders by standing between the officers guarding the building and the protesters across the street. One older man lifted a loudspeaker and reminded the group, “We do not want anyone rioting or looting!” Another younger man took the loudspeaker and declared, “We cannot escalate the violence! We cannot give them any more reason to shoot and kill us!”
Then the leaders asked people to kneel and observe a moment of silence for black people who have died from injustice and police brutality. Hundreds dropped to their knees like a rippling wave. For a few minutes, the entire area went silent except for the whirling, choppy swooshes of police helicopters circling above.
It was almost 5:30 p.m. At once, phones in people’s pockets began buzzing, and emergency alert tones sounded: A countywide curfew was going into effect at 6 p.m. Then the separation started. Some would go back home to observe the curfew, and others would stay against orders.
One of the leaders lifted the loudspeaker again and begged the protesters: “Do not burn our city down. Do not harm one another. This is not black or white. This is the people against injustice and violence!” The crowd cheered in agreement, and most of them trudged back to their cars.
Somber news came that evening: Hundreds of looters punched and kicked down the boards covering stores in Santa Monica and Long Beach. They cheered when the plywood broke and windows shattered. Streams of people rushed into the stores and waddled out with arms full of goods: boxes of designer shoes, bicycles, surfboards.
Some had clearly prepared for the occasion: SUVs and trucks pulled up in front of the store while looters heaved items inside and dashed in for more. The Santa Monica Police Department said officers arrested about 400 people that day, 95 percent of them from outside the city. In downtown, one Latino man in his 20s died from a gunshot from an unknown person. It’s still not clear if the murder was related to the protests.
More looting followed more protests Monday. Police seemed to be quicker in stopping it, but Los Angeles County was under mandatory curfew for the third straight day.
Lopez, the peacekeeper at Sunday’s protest, said the rioters and looters are missing the point: “They’re out here angry and letting out that violence, but we’re not out here to start violence. If things start getting ugly … I’m going to loud, I’m going to tell them not to because this is our protest. It’s not OK for them to take that away from us.”
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