Santa Monica Overwhelmed

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 1st Amendment, Bill of Rights

~ Chaos, anguish, despair, and lawlessness gripped our city on Sunday. By Monday, anger, disbelief, and heartbreak were the words of choice. One Hundred Fifty-Five businesses had “significant” damage. Over Three Hundred Fifty reported some loss. Nine fires set. Citations issued to Four Hundred Thirty-Eight people. None spent a night in jail. A petition to remove the Chief of Police has garnered over 37,000 signatures in five days.

~ I marched in the peaceful protest in Palisades Park from Montana to Colorado and back at Noon, Sunday, May 31. Approximately 200 Santa Monicans walked to protest the slaying of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. It included 8 minutes, forty-six seconds of silence to commemorate the amount of time that the policeman (now charged with 2nd-degree murder) kept his knee on George’s neck. The procession included a variety of residents, both young and old, furious at the unjust killing of yet another black man in our nation. A squad of SMPD motor units and Culver City police officers met the peaceful protest at Montana at Ocean as we returned to the starting point. The officers in riot gear appeared to be overkill for this small neighborhood march, and their appearance revved up the protestors. Eventually, the motor cops abruptly departed, and a segment of peaceful protestors walked east on Montana and through the NOMA neighborhood for several hours. I left the march and moved south on 4th Street.

~ I arrived downtown just after the looting began in earnest. There were police stationed on each block of the Promenade, but none to be seen elsewhere in our city’s core. SMPD arrived in force to chase criminals from Santa Monica Place. Our police refused to venture a half-block east to confront the hundreds of looters marauding along Fourth Street.  I stood at 4th and Arizona, desperately calling 911 as I saw each store invaded. SMPD responded to one of my calls – throngs of looters using tire irons and hammers on Bank of America. The looters ran, and our officers turned and headed back towards the ocean. I watched as looters continued to ransack Wasteland, Road Runner, and Patagonia.

~ Each looter would fill their arms with merchandise, run through the B of A and Chase parking lots, and deposit their goods in cars idling on 5th and Arizona. Then they would reverse course and return for more. Young, high school, college-age, female, and male, with stylish getaway cars (some rented), became a mob scene. I spent two hours on the streets of downtown Santa Monica as total lawlessness gripped it. It was as if our Police Department had gone on strike just as a massive swath of gang bangers drove into our town. Cue an old Western B-Movie where the sheriff knows the gang outnumbers him on the way into town throws down his badge and leaves. It is hard to describe the feelings I had. The utter despair of knowing that the merchants were on their own, that there would be no help for those attacked. The extreme frustration of calling 911 twice to say that looters were breaking into T-Mobile and seeing no response when the SMPD officers at Wilshire Blvd and the Promenade could see the break-in occurring. Watching the looters block Wilshire and 4th so their compatriots could load up the cars with hot merchandise was especially depressing. Five minutes later, I called 911 again as the windows at Kurt’s Jeweler’s shattered. You guessed it, no response. It was an organized mob of looters from the LA area. Posts on social media had advertised the event all day. It was not a secret that the criminals were coming. The party was on, but SMPD chose not to attend. 

~ After viewing the unrest and looting at Beverly Center, Rodeo Drive, Farmers Market, and the Grove Saturday afternoon, and downtown Los Angeles Friday night, it was apparent that wealthy Santa Monica was the next target. Why weren’t downtown business owners warned so they could ready themselves for the onslaught? They could have boarded up or stayed in their shops and prepared. Some of the establishments that had armed guards or owners who were armed went unharmed. If the Santa Monica Police could not defend Downtown Santa Monica (DTSM), they were obligated to let businesses know that they were on their own.

~ Why did the SMPD only focus on the non-violent protestors on Ocean Avenue and Montana Avenue and ignore the massive criminal enterprise that was destroying the city that we love? They received over 700 emergency calls that day. Overwhelming, yes, but why was looting overlooked? Officers watched as the Nike store was laid bare. Van’s lost everything. Officers abandoned the remainder of DTSM as well as Lincoln Blvd, and the list goes on. Why didn’t we box in the looters and seal our downtown streets? Again, we knew this was coming. Our city suffered no damage in the Rodney King riots of 1992. We sealed the borders, enforced curfews, and posted Police everywhere. This time, SMPD failed. Convincing threats to the Pier had been received, but looters and agitators didn’t access that landmark. We tear-gassed the mostly peaceful demonstrators, along with a few bad apples who wanted to confront any police officers they saw. During the entire time that SMPD was confronting the protestors, criminals ran rampant—almost four hours without police units in DTSM and throughout the city. Why weren’t we confronting looters the way we were confronting protestors?

~ I believe a police presence throughout our city would have prevented the disaster that occurred. I do not comprehend why we did not request the National Guard until 12:30 PM Sunday when we knew a hurricane of looters was coming Sunday afternoon. We had mutual aid officers present from other cities, the Sheriff’s Department standing by, and yet no officers to lock down DTSM. To most residents, there was a total abject failure to care for our public safety.

~ My mother lives next to a car dealership, and my significant other was with her as looters smashed the windows at the dealership. They called 911 to report that Santa Monica BMW was under siege. The 911 operator was apologetic, “No one to send.” Later, when the police began to push the protestors east on Broadway, my 92-year-old mother called to inform me that looters and protestors were accessing apartment houses on her block. The police had pushed demonstrators into the residential areas, and many of them roamed the Mid-City Neighborhoods until after 10 PM. Again, no response from SMPD.

~ Days later, this horrific experience is still raw, but healing comes quickly. The sun rose on Monday to a renewed sense of community spirit. Throngs of Santa Monicans fanned out throughout our city to remove broken glass from our streets, clean graffiti, and comfort merchants who had lost everything. Of particular note, the Samohi grads who own and operate the Santa Monica Music Center. Lana Fernandez Negrete and her family have been great friends of our schools and music community for years. Looters cleaned them out. Wonders of the World owner Henry Runch watched as marauders pillaged his unrivaled collection of crystals and ancient artifacts and beat him. After being closed for ten weeks due to COVID-19, it cost him $10,000 to board his store. Both of the above stores have launched Go Fund Me pages. They need our help.

~ We love our Santa Monica Police Department. I have friends who spent their law enforcement careers here, and I’ve always felt I could rely on them in times of need. The vacuum of leadership in the SMPD and City Hall is extremely unsettling to me. We need to dig deep and examine the failures of May 31. A thorough, independent, no holds barred investigation is required. While we’re at it, the trust of the community in our police is compromised. There is a solution. Establish a Police Commission with teeth. Top-notch civilian oversight of all Police Departments is a must. It is time for action in Santa Monica. “What are we paying our police force for if they are not making arrests on the most violent crime-ridden day in the history of the city.” – Josh Levy, resident.

~ Overshadowed by the tragic events of the week, nationally and locally, there is still a pandemic—Santa Monica’s tally: 493 cases of COVID-19 and 47 deaths. As always, we wish a speedy recovery to those affected and grieve those we have lost. Have compassion, WEAR A MASK.

His final words echo across the world. “I can’t breathe, please, sir, please, please, please, I can’t breathe.”  

By Phil Brock for SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

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