By Greggory Moore, Contributing Writer
The protests in Long Beach Sunday afternoon could not have been more encouraging, as thousands of marchers used only their feet and voices to vent their righteous anger, while police employed perfect restraint, not even showing a genuine presence where none was required.
But as the sun dipped toward the horizon, it was as if a switch was flipped, opening a gate to a flood of materialistic opportunists, who sowed chaos and smash-and-grabbed for all they were worth, while police generally failed to be where they were needed most.
The sounds beneath my window ― like the morning of our annual Pride Parade ― let me know it’s time to venture out, that the protest is afoot. On my bike I follow the thick trickle of people to the LBPD’s West Division headquarters (fortified, I see, by the concrete fence barriers used for the Grand Prix), where I ascertain that the main body has already gone east down Broadway. They are literally impossible to miss, about a thousand souls clogging the Pine Ave. intersection. The chants are from the hymnal of the moment: “Black lives matter!,” “Hands up–don’t shoot!,” “Say his name ― George Floyd!,” “No justice, no peace” (plus the occasional “Fuck the police!”). Cars caught in traffic don’t seem to mind; many are willing captives, honking in rhythm, in appreciation. The police are barely visible. No matter: there’s nothing for them to do. No violence. No vandalism. The worst crime is jaywalking.
At Broadway and Long Beach Blvd., the crowd swells by the second. Another intersection takeover, this one longer. No police presence whatsoever ― and again, none needed. Protesters take care to block only half the intersection, a few even helping cars to safely navigate away from the throng.
After looping through the East Village Arts District and chatting with Rand Foster (boarding up his Fingerprints Music, just in case), I find the crowd ― more than twice the size when last we met ― streaming up Long Beach Blvd. from Ocean Blvd. Several protestors berate a tagger into submission almost before he begins ― and this just for desecrating a temporary banner on a chain-link fence.
West of Pacific Ave., the protesters are a concentrated force now, clogging 3rd St. as they snake south down Chestnut Ave., where police at West Division HQ calmly impassively absorbing the invective directed at the injustice they represent.
For the first time all day, the LBPD ― maybe 20 officers with eight vehicles ― sets up a skirmish line at the bottom of the small hill of S. Pine Ave., where the marchers quickly coalesce into an overwhelming mass. It is less the occasional airborne plastic bottle of water or serving of French fries that compels them to beat an immediate retreat than the sheer mass of humanity descending upon them, however nonviolently.
On Shoreline Blvd., a police phalanx positions itself to prevent the marchers from leaking north into the Pike Outlets shopping center. Not that they have this in mind ― they were protestors, not looters ― but this brings the two sides into their closest contact yet, with a man leaning forward to literally scream into an officer’s bodycam. The police remain passive, stoic, and the marchers move along.
On Magnolia Ave. on the other side of West Division HQ, protestors cluster and chant: “No justice, no peace!” For the first time all day I hear police issue an order to disperse. A ten-minute warning. Police remain well back as the clock runs out. A final warning, with instructions that they move east. Consistent with everything else on this day, neither police nor protestors cross the line. With no confrontation, the march continues peacefully.
So far, so good.
Everywhere I’ve gone today, somebody’s been putting up plywood. Before long a couple of streets offered only glimpses of glass. Here and there it may have acquired a bit of semantic content, but the spraypaint authors had steered clear of permanent damage.
But back on Ocean, things have changed. Tagging is everywhere. Fuck 12 in a consistent gangland hand. FTP. Identical stencils of a Black power fist. The main body of protestors has thinned, fractured. For a while I’m not sure where they are.
But over at the Pike, the looters are impossible to miss. They scurry like hooded cockroaches, toting gym bags and crowbars. Cars slide to the curb as if dropping off passengers at Long Beach Airport. Pellets of glass crumble to the pavement. No plywood here. T-Mobile, California Pizza Kitchen, Forever 21, The Gap ― decimated. Young men ― more than a few young women ― run helter-skelter with armfuls and bagful of clothes and shoes, which are emptied into trunks and backseats.
But they needn’t run. As they pick apart the Pike, police are concentrating on the peaceful protestors on Shoreline, driving them up Pine and right into the looting. A few marchers make brave efforts to dissuade the looting, but the perpetrators pay them no mind. Two dozen officers clear the middle of the Pike and then stand fast, leaving its northernmost lane a free-for-all. For a full half-hour thieves come and go inside these stores (particularly Hot Topic, for whatever reason), but not a single officer goes to investigate even when informed repeatedly (twice by me alone) that looting is ongoing right there, just over here, come look! For nearly ten minutes a pair of thick-bodied bash vending machines, metal on metal strikes so loud that they can almost be heard from where the officers stand. And stand. And stand.
The only unscathed retail shop on the lane is the Nike Factory Store, bravely garrisoned by a half-dozen unarmed young men dressed in black.
Down on Shoreline, confused/stunned/disappointed protestors and awed onlookers watch carefree looters load up their cars. A black-clad, maskless man openly brandishes a 9mm near his groin, an unmistakable “Don’t fuck with me” to someone for a real or perceived offense I missed. I ride inside to inform the officers: “There’s a guy with a handgun right over there!” They wave me off, even as I pull down my mask and make my hand into the universal symbol for a pistol so there is no way they cannot understand what I’m telling them.
I don’t envy the police on the least eventful of days; and it’s easy for me to second-guess their actions (or lack thereof) as I sit in the security of my room five hours later and reflect on what transpired. That said, clearly the LBPD was unprepared for the worst-case scenario, despite having seen it play out just this way in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and across the country over the last few days. When they needed to be most active, they seemed to freeze in place.
The people who keep marching ― perhaps fewer than a thousand now and spread more thinly ― are less peaceable and seemingly less committed to their ostensible cause. The chanting seems perfunctory now, more of an excuse to spew venom and vandalize (not an unforgivable sin anymore) than sincere feeling. There is even a sort of revelry. Clearly, most of the genuine protestors are gone, apparently wanting no part of the turn the day has taken.
Riot-geared Sheriff’s deputies and SWAT teams arrive and curiously march west on Shoreline from east of Pine almost to Chestnut, despite the fact that the area in front of them is all but deserted. Finally they turned north and secured the Pike.
By this time, though, there is little to secure. The locusts have finished feasting and moved their mayhem up to Pine. Restaurants are brazenly smashed and gutted. Whiskey and wine are casually carted off, a bottle in each hand. A man emerges from Rock Bottom Brewery with a TV so wide he barely has the wingspan to carry it away.
As night falls, a hodgepodge of action fans across downtown. Professional-grade fireworks are mortared skyward and detonated at ground level. Criminal entrepreneurs set up shop in alleyways to vend their stolen wares. A man with SECURITY emblazoned across his back refastens the rear license plate he’s removed from his car and drives off with his booty. The marchers and ad hoc motorcade making their way west on 4th through and beyond the East Village regularly spawn small raiding parties into whatever un-boarded businesses catch their fancy.
At 8:30 p.m., I’ve had enough. I pedal through a preternaturally quiet downtown, dejected and disheartened, destruction everywhere I turn. Can this really be the same day that started out so bittersweetly beautiful, with so many fine people banding together for a righteous cause, exploiting nothing but their First Amendment rights and the powers of empathy and community? Despite coming together over terrible things ― the murder of George Floyd, of Ahmaud Arbery, the chronic systemic mistreatment of people of color ― the spirit of togetherness was an unmitigated good. And now….
In a pretty alley off Pine Ave., as the security alarm of Alegria Cocina Latina trills its desperate, unheeded warning through its blown-out windows, I watch a large hooded figure struggle to haul away a heavy black cube of computer equipment through a crowd of bystanders and thieves. A fellow bicyclist sidles up and asks for my impression of the day’s events. The ensuing pleasant conversation is completely incongruous to our environment. He’s from Costa Mesa, he tells me, but he thought he should see in person one of these things he’s witnessed on TV, come to a bigger city. And he likes Long Beach, says he’s thinking of moving here.
“It’s a great city,” I say, watching the increase of wanton destruction immediately across the street. “I’m not a native, but I’ve been here 15 years now, and it’s home. If your instincts are pointing you in this direction, I can only encourage you.” We exchange contact info; I promise to do what I can to plug him into the community when he comes.
“I’m sorry what’s happening to your city today,” he says in parting. “Here’s to better days.”