Artists Paint Shattered La Mesa Storefronts: 'This Isn't About Property Loss'
Days before Saturday's protest and riots in La Mesa, sculptor Spenser Little knew he'd be making art about police brutality and race, but he didn’t yet know what form it would take. He, like many others who attended Saturday's protest, had watched the video of Amaurie Johnson, a black man, being shoved repeatedly, handcuffed and then arrested with little explanation near Grossmont Trolley Station by La Mesa Police.
After Saturday's looting and the weekend's cleanup, Little’s idea took shape.
Little was born and raised in east county San Diego. In fact, years ago, his first apartment was on Lemon Avenue in La Mesa, just overlooking the very shopping center in which he organized dozens of artists to paint the plywood boards covering up storefronts damaged during Saturday's looting.
At the protest, he was moved by the peaceful crowd, and expected the police department to make a statement or have a conversation with the protesters, but that didn't happen. "I was amazed that the La Mesa Police Department didn't do anything except dress for a riot," Little said.
As the day turned to evening, and tensions escalated, Little observed a rage and frustration amongst the crowd. "And you know, when you don't meet that rage with any kind of accountability… the police department did absolutely nothing, so what do they expect when they did nothing but start to shower the crowd — man, woman, child — with pepper balls, pepper spray and flash grenades? And what do you think that's gonna do to a crowd that's peaceful? It's gonna make them mad," Little said.
Little watched the crowd disperse and try to find supplies at the Vons supermarket, where the protesters were denied buying milk, he said.
Throughout the course of the evening, rioters, whether they were part of the earlier protests or not, damaged several storefronts and set fire to two nearby banks.
Little's response to the protests was not surprising; he makes art every day. "I'm an artist; that's my only power. That's what I do," he said. "I have a bad day, I make art; I have a good day, I make art. That's just how I react to everything."
He began calling artist friends and enlisted his sister, Megan Little, to reach out to the local businesses with property damage. She paired each business with an artist, and began conversations between each.
They started a GoFundMe campaign for art supplies, and quickly closed the fundraiser after they exceeded their goal. And then, the artists set to work. Dozens of local artists, including Joe Castillo, Jonny Alexander, Vincente Ghoste, Laurie Nasica, Aaron Glasson, Thao Huynh and more.
Artist Chloe Becky painted the unmistakable rendering of George Floyd, the man killed in police custody in Minneapolis last week. The mural, on the windows of the beauty school next to Vons, has served as a makeshift memorial since its completion, gathering flowers.
"I wanted to do his portrait to remind everyone the reason for the protest and the damage that was left in its wake. While I don't condone the smashing up of small businesses, people are angry and rightfully so," said Becky. "I have painted portraits before, but never a memorial. I hope I never need to memorialize another innocent life lost to racism and brutality by those that say they are here to 'protect and serve.'"
Little said that the response has been powerful: After word got out, people flocked to the shopping center to see the mural and approached Little and the artist to discuss the project and the issues affecting the community.
Artists Aaron Glasson and Jonny Alexander were also at the protests on Saturday, and had been working on several murals throughout the shopping center, including one on the side of Albertos. "Art can beautify spaces," said Glasson. "It can inspire people and show images of unity and cooperation, and it can voice our concerns and voice our communal escalations."
Not all of the art is protest art. One in-progress piece, on the Pizza Hut windows, features a slice of pepperoni pizza by artist Lourans Mikhail. Joe Castillo was painting large script lettering with the words "La Mesa Strong" and "Open" on a boarded-up window of the Postal Annex. Little said that they spoke with the business owners and wanted to honor their needs. "This is their property. This is us trying to help them and the community. We're not trying to express political views, we're just trying to do a humane act for fellow citizens," Little said.
The act of creating the murals and creating art on damaged storefronts is itself an ephemeral act; ultimately, these plywood boards will be removed as they're replaced by new windows. But Little is prepared to mobilize for other areas if additional damages occur.
"Will art change anything or will art do anything good? Maybe it won't do anything more than just brighten someone's day as they walk by a smashed window, but I hope it shows people that we're human," he said.
"That portrait of George Floyd, I hope that portrait reminds people that this isn't about property loss, this is about human life loss,” said Little. “This is about huge, huge human oppression and people aren't gonna stand for it anymore."