One year ago, looters and rioters ransacked and set fire to businesses in La Mesa, thrusting the city into the national spotlight.
The rubble has been cleared and glass storefronts replaced, but an empty lot where a historic building once stood and a chain link fence around what used to be a bank are some of the daily reminders of what happened.
The destruction came on the heels of protesters calling for justice for the death of George Floyd a few days earlier in Minnesota and the controversial arrest of Amaurie Johnson by a white La Mesa police officer.
Victor Rivera was working at Tiramisu Restaurant in La Mesa Village that night and witnessed the peaceful protests turn chaotic.
“We started hearing people screaming — a lot of noise in the street,” he said. “I walked out and smelled burning…we started blocking the windows and doors. La Mesa is usually very quiet and calm, so it was very disturbing.”
Local government and community leaders gathered to mark the anniversary Sunday near the site of the destruction, at La Mesa First United Methodist Church.
The event, called “La Mesa Day of Remembrance Sunday,” was organized by the nonprofit La Mesa Conversations and the community group Envision La Mesa.
Dr. Akilah Weber from the 79th State Assembly District said the day of the protests started off promising.
“Unfortunately, that turned into a lot of pain when we saw the city destroyed, businesses being vandalized by people coming in with a different purpose,” she said. “But we will not be defined by one incident.”
La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis said the community turned that pain into a new purpose.
“We were impressed and overwhelmed by how people came out and lines and biases dropped as people came together,” said Arapostathis. “I saw people come out the next morning without any direction — with brooms and trash cans…they came together and showed true love.”
La Mesa was thrown into a national conversation on race and police brutality that night – George Floyd had died at the hands of police five days before the riots and a video of a La Mesa police officer using excessive force against Amaurie Johnson and arresting him under alleged false pretenses had just been released publicly.
Craig Reed with the community group Envision La Mesa told NBC 7 as painful as it is to remember what happened that night, he doesn’t want to forget.
“If you don’t remember it and grow from it, you’ll repeat it at some point. I have no wish to see this pain happen again,” he said.
“What happens in life is we become complacent and there’s an event and people come out…then we fall back into our complacent lives,” he said. “We need to be vigilant and purposeful and remember how we felt that next morning and that’s how we should live our lives.”
California Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber says there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“This is not just a destination, this is a life journey – justice, equality and peace is something we strive for every day,” she said.