La Mesa group aims to repel looters, draws vigilante justice concerns

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A person wears a gas mask as they stand before a burning vehicle during the La Mesa riots. The chaos came after a day of peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd by many other demonstrators. (Photo: OnScene.TV)

LA MESA, Calif. (CNS) – La Mesa residents and business owners have begun a Facebook group to form a civilian force aimed at deterring looting and arson, but one member Tuesday expressed concern that the effort could devolve into vigilantism.

“La Mesa Civil Defense” was created Monday by attorney Scott McMillan, 56, older brother of Shawn McMillan, a former candidate for judge and San Diego mayor.

“Let’s get organized by next Friday night,” Scott McMillan wrote. “That is when the next round of tomfoolery will begin. Let’s plan on them and their scouts determining that we are not a soft target and they just move on through.”

The group’s public description says, “La Mesa community-based organization to provide emergency assistance to residents and businesses during riots and natural disasters. Auxiliary to police, fire and emergency medical responders. No political discussion. No gossip. Just service.”

McMillan appointed La Mesa City Councilwoman Kristine Alessio an administrator of the closed group, which was briefly named “La Mesa Night Watch.”

Alessio helped set up an email network, and at her invitation, former La Mesa Councilman Guy McWhirter also joined.

Looters crowd into a sporting goods store during the La Mesa riots. The chaos came after a day of peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd by many other demonstrators. (Photo: OnScene.TV)

“I joined because this weekend’s activity indicated a need to have our citizens have a group that we can reach out to others in the event of major emergencies, earthquakes, fires, etc,” McWhirter said.

McWhirter said La Mesa police and firefighters do a fabulous job but can be overwhelmed. A citywide curfew was declared from 7 p.m. Tuesday to 5:30 a.m. Wednesday.

In a phone interview Tuesday with Times of San Diego, McMillan said they had not contacted La Mesa police or the Heartland Fire and Rescue Department.

“We haven’t started deciding whether we’re going to work with the authorities,” he said. “It may be something that’s just ad hoc. But we’re not just going to sit back and have our businesses looted again. Or people assaulted and beaten and taken to the hospital.”

A La Mesa resident who joined the group but asked to remain anonymous said, “I … am saddened by the brutality that has occurred by the police, and I am also horrified by the looting and destruction of our town.”

The person also said, “I have seen many posts from social media over the years and heard directly from non-white residents that they do not feel welcome in La Mesa, even before the protests for George Floyd.

“I am concerned that mostly white vigilante groups like La Mesa Civil Defense will target non-white people and further divide our community. I have seen horrible and racist social media posts from several members of La Mesa Civil Defense.”

The La Mesa resident then said, “These are the last people I would want protecting our town. If these vigilantes are armed, we will likely see more violence. This is not the way to move forward and we need our elected officials to condemn these groups. I am frightened for what may happen.”

Looters ransack a beauty supply shop in La Mesa. (Photo: OnScene.TV)

However, group administrator Ron Irvin posted: “No hateful or racist comments allowed or tolerated. If you spew hate, you will be removed from the group. … All colors of people are welcome, and any hate towards another color will not be tolerated.”

The group also says of itself, “This is not a forum for discussion of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. California law allows the carrying and use of a firearm in certain circumstances. If you choose to carry a firearm, that will be your responsibility for complying with the laws. Do not assume you are going to need, let alone use, a firearm. Posts about shooting anyone will be deleted and you will be removed.”

McMillan stressed that members decry the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd “or anybody else that was a victim of police misconduct or police abuse. … But we’re not going to have our businesses ruined or looted, our people robbed or people beaten.”

McMillan said he provided medical care to a young woman who interrupted somebody trying to start a fire at La Mesa’s historic train depot. He declined to say whether local business owners carried firearms late Saturday night and early Sunday when four local structures were burned to the ground, including the Union and Chase bank branches on Spring Street.

Videos posted on Facebook by Caleb Boynton made reference to about 10 armed people defending businesses in the downtown Village area, keeping looters at bay.

McMillan, an El Cajon resident, was at his office near Nebo Drive and Lemon Avenue and declined to discuss the people deterring looters over the weekend.

“I don’t know that I want to talk about it other than we basically don’t want our town to get burned to the ground, as people have threatened to do,” he said.

“We’re planning on standing in front of stores and trying to convince people not to do that, which seems to have been effective where it happened.”

McMillan said his group has posted videos on de-escalation techniques.

Alessio, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, posted Tuesday evening, “Okay tonight are expecting things might be rough. The key for us is being smart and de-escalate when possible. The entire [City] Council knows about us and really doesn’t mind that we’re doing it, but they ask we use restraint. Be vigilant and careful.”

La Mesa city officials including Police Chief Walt Vasquez did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did the Heartland Fire and Rescue Department.

Councilwoman Akilah Weber, who said she was not aware of the group until contacted, said, “I will speak with Alessio this afternoon when we meet.”

The first mention of armed La Mesans seeking to ward off vandals was made Sunday in a column that appeared on the San Diego Jewish World website in which Eric George Tauber recounted a conversation he overheard that a handful of La Mesa residents “took it upon themselves to protect their community from the rioters.”

When Tauber asked if they were armed, Boyton replied, “Absolutely. We had guns, knives, bats, everything.”

Boynton said that early on vandals weren’t looking for fights.

“So it was nice,” Boynton said. “If you were physically standing in front of your building, they wouldn’t take action. They would show up and turn around.”

Also among the members of the Facebook group was Elaine Maisen, who lists her profession on her LinkedIn profile as a dispatcher for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

She posted, “Pillagers do not like to have to do actual work. Lazier than I am, unless I am confronted with a crisis!”

On Monday night, she posted, “I have to chuckle because most of the ‘action’ took place west of Spring. Will change into my dispatcher attire and see if I can walk up to Spring at 10 pm.”

She posted a link to a story headlined, “WATCH: Philadelphia Residents Patrol Streets With Baseball Bats,” and commented, “Hmmm, it seems that other neighborhoods have similar ideas, with the blessing of their local police dept.”

Monica Munoz, spokeswoman for San Diego Fire-Rescue, reviewed posts shared by Times of San Diego and said: “There is no indication that this group is armed. There is nothing disparaging or negative in the posts.”

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