(NBC) – Local leaders of the black community gathered on the steps of the San Diego County Administration Building on Monday to call attention to what they say were unlawful uses of force by law enforcement officers during protests in La Mesa and in downtown San Diego over the weekend.
The group argued that it was police officers that increased tensions during the mostly peaceful demonstrations to a point where tear gas, flashbangs and rubber bullets were deployed on the crowds.
“The change was when [demonstrators] ended their march at the Hall of Justice and the San Diego Police Department marched 50 uniformed, combat armored troops, basically – they looked like troops. I’m a Marine Veteran, I can tell you, they looked like troops – into a confined space,” said San Diego Democratic Chair Will Rodriguez-Kennedy.
They called for every city in San Diego County to create a community review board that could analyze current police practices and hold malpractices accountable, and to end the use of the carotid restraint, a neck restraint meant to be more humane than a chokehold but that has been criticized for being used more frequently on people of color.
The San Diego demonstration in support of George Floyd remained calm as protestors marched along Broadway between the Hall of Justice and San Diego Police Headquarters, at one point blocking traffic on Interstate 5 near downtown. But by the late afternoon, SDPD said some people were hurling water bottles and rocks at armored officers, prompting SDPD to issue an “unlawful assembly order” and officers to launch tear gas, pepper balls and flashbangs to disperse what remained of the crowd.
Hundreds more demonstrators gathered as nightfall approached. The march made its way to the County Administration Building by 7 p.m. for a vigil in remembrance of Floyd, who died in handcuffs while gasping for breath underneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. Officer Derek Chauvin was charged with murder, but protesters are demanding the three other officers at the scene be prosecuted. All four were fired.
While the majority of about 1,000 people gathered remained peaceful, a portion returned to the streets of downtown San Diego and began breaking the windows to businesses. Looting was reported at 7-Eleven, a CVS Pharmacy and other shops downtown.
Police arrested more than 100 people and booked them into jail on “charges from failure to disperse, burglary, assaulting officers and vandalism,” SDPD tweeted.
In La Mesa, similar tactics were used when the department said a protest over the controversial arrest of a black man by a white officer at a trolley stop became an “unlawful gathering.”
Tear gas was deployed and burned the eyes and mouths of demonstrators, including adolescents, the group said. At least one woman was knocked unconscious after being struck in the forehead by a rubber bullet.
She remains in the intensive care unit. Her family joined local community leaders to condemn the actions of the La Mesa Police Department.
As the night progressed, the demonstration turned to chaos as some people began to set banks ablaze and break into stores. Multiple vehicles, including a Heartland Fire & Rescue vehicle, were also set on fire.
Blair Overstreet with the advocacy group Showing Up for Racial Justice said it was understandable that a group of citizens would feel threatened when met with a line of police officers in tactical gear.
“Police are the ones that are escalating the situation, causing untrained people to panic understandably in the face of military gear and to feel threatened with violence and perhaps to act to defend themselves,” she said.
Genevieve Jones-Wright, executive director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance, acknowledged that George Floyd’s death was the first time police chiefs have condemned the actions of a police officer, but it was not enough.
“We would be remiss as a community if we did not take this crisis and see the opportunity. We have been asking for police reform for years. We have been asking to be seen as humans for decades and centuries and now is the time where we are finally getting to propel this conversation,” She said. “I regret that it is through yet more lives being lost. I regret that it is through another demonstration that police officers incite violence on peaceful demonstrators like we saw in La Mesa, like we saw in the city of San Diego just yesterday.”
She asked local law enforcement officers to support a mechanism that would provide a check on their department.
“Every single city in the county of San Diego must establish an independent and community-led commission on police practices,” Jones-Wright said.
NBC 7 San Diego reached out to SDPD for a response to the message from black community leaders but have not yet heard back. NBC 7 also reached out to the La Mesa Police Department over the weekend for a response to the firing of a rubber bullet that struck a woman in the forehead. The department has not yet responded.
Community leader Tasha Williamson said accountability doesn’t just lie with law enforcement officers. She encouraged anyone playing witness to an arrest to act.
“We are now asking for your support to join together as human beings to make sure when you see police stop somebody of color that you stop, so they know that you are present,” Williamson said.
The mayor of San Diego was expected to hold his own press conference to address more than 100 arrests on charges of failure to disperse, burglary, assaulting officers and vandalism following a day of protests. A time has not yet been determined for that press conference.