Agonizing Over What I Saw: Reporting on Protests, Looting And Cleanup In Santa Monica

Emily Guerin reporting for our newsroom in Santa Monica on Sunday. (Chava Sanchez / LAist)

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By the time I was asked to cover the Black Lives Matter protest at 1:55 p.m. on Sunday, it had been going on for two hours. I was late, and I needed to get there fast.

So I got on my bike and rode from my house, which is just over a mile from downtown Santa Monica. I headed down Broadway, because it has a bike lane.

I didn't know it then, but that route took me straight into the area where the looting was happening. If I had only chosen to ride into town on Main St., which also has a bike lane, I would have arrived at the protest first.

Once in the middle of the looting, I decided to stay to observe the police response, even though I knew that just a few blocks away an entirely different group of people were protesting peacefully and I risked missing it.


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The stakes for getting it right felt incredibly high — media outlets, including KPCC/LAist, have been criticized for focusing too much on property damage and not enough on the systemic racism, inequality and police brutality driving the protests.

I want to let you in on my thought process, how I agonized over how to fairly report on what I was seeing, and how I may have come up short.

Scenes from 4th and Santa Monica on Sunday, May 31, 2020, where tensions quickly escalated after somebody began throwing bottles at a police squad car. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

THE FRENZY

I parked my bike outside a homeopathic pharmacy on Broadway whose window had been smashed. Three white women stood outside. At least one of them was crying. As I looked up, I saw two young black men approach.

"This shouldn't have happened to you," one said. "I'm sorry."

I walked west. People were driving erratically: pulling U-turns in the middle of the street, swerving and nearly slamming into parked cars, stopping suddenly in the road. The energy was electric. Frenzied. I was alone, and I was, to be honest, a little freaked out.

I watched as people ran out of the Vans store, their arms full of shoeboxes. They stacked them in the trunk of a waiting car, and drove away. I heard a man bragging about how much rock climbing gear he'd just stolen from REI, and turned to see him, grinning, bent over a stolen backpack. "Dude, do you even know how to climb?" his friend asked.

I watched someone spray paint "Black Lives Matter" onto the white wall of Capital One bank. Minutes later, two women with signs that read, "No Justice, No Peace" and "I Can't Breathe" posed for pictures in front of it.

Protesters march in Santa Monica on Sunday. (Chava Sanchez / LAist)

THREE VIEWS OF LOOTING

I began to record a video with my cell phone, and as I recorded, I worried about how it would be received on Twitter.

It felt like there were three camps on the internet: those alarmed by "rioting" and focused on looting; those who sympathized with the protesters but thought the property destruction undermined their cause; and those who said the looting was a manifestation of anger and oppression, and should be understood as such.

I wondered how the scene I was recording would be received by each camp. And I second-guessed myself: Is what I'm seeing the truth? Am I missing something? Am I filtering everything through my identity as a young, upper-middle-class white woman?

THE LOOK

I noticed two older men standing on the corner nearby. They made eye contact with me, and the look they gave me was one of smug disapproval that they seemed to assume I shared. The look said, "Can you believe what these people are doing?"

I looked away.

After 17 minutes, the police showed up in big, black armored vehicles. There were sirens and loud bangs, and the people running in and out of the Vans store scattered.

I crossed 4th St. and ended up next to Pasang Lhamo, who was standing in the entryway to her store, Yak Exchange, trying to keep people from breaking in.

Lhamo said she supported the protesters, but not the people breaking into stores. "They're hurting all the businesses. It's not good. They're scaring everyone."

And it was true: Being downtown was scary.

Smoke billowed through the streets.

Helicopters circled low.

There were bangs and flashes and screams.

Water from sprinkler systems ran down the street.

Broken glass and stolen merchandise littered the sidewalk.

And then the water cannon came out.


Fully armored sheriff's and police officers arrived with a military-style vehicle and began dispersing the crowd with a water cannon, May 31, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

A TENSE SITUATION

Sake House, a Japanese restaurant on the corner of Santa Monica and 4th St, was on fire. Firefighters were unraveling hoses and leaning ladders against the side of the building. A few police cruisers were parked there, officers standing next to them, acting as a buffer between the fire trucks and the crowd that had gathered.

At some point, people in the crowd began throwing bottles and other things at the cruisers, and yelling "F*ck the police." The window of one of the cruisers shattered. I ducked into an alcove and stuck my arm out around the corner to film.

"Oh god," I thought. "It's going to get ugly."

The police began moving toward the crowd in a line, with guns and batons out, but, from what I could see, they weren't raised at anyone. People in the crowd were screaming. A man next to me was vigorously making a thumbs down motion. I ran across the street and tugged at the arm of KPCC/LAist photographer Chava Sanchez, who I had recently met up with. Together we watched as an armored vehicle rolled into the intersection and began spraying water in our direction.

We tried to escape, but there were police officers behind us suddenly. They were pushing us toward the water. We shuffled forward, backwards, until we finally were able to get out past the officers behind us.

Then my editor called. She wanted me to go live on the radio. Like, right then. So, I did. I reported what I saw: the bottle-throwing, the fire, the looting.

FINDING THE PROTESTERS, FINALLY

After we escaped the water cannon, Chava and I finally caught up with a group that had splintered off the main protest. We approached a line of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder across Broadway. There were two health care workers in scrubs. A man in a Howard University t-shirt. A teenager in goggles with a sign that said, "Silence is Compliance." They were calm, and so were the police who were facing them about 10 feet away.

I started talking to a young man named Onkar, who was standing off to the side with a sign that said, "I'm tired of making hashtags for black men."

Scenes from a protest on 5th and Broadway in Santa Monica on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

I asked him what he thought the media got wrong about these protests, and Onkar told me that we focus too much on "quote unquote rioting and quote unquote looting." He said people are frustrated. He said people are in despair. He said if the officials in Minneapolis arrested the three other officers connected with the killing of George Floyd, the protests would end. (The three other officers have since been charged with aiding and abetting murder; protests continue.)

'PRESS! WE'RE REPORTERS!'

By this point, it was well after curfew, which began at 4 p.m., and the police presence was growing. Chava and I heard the police had started to arrest people for curfew violations, and we wanted to see it. We began walking down an alley, following a police officer's suggestion, and came across a group of officers in green fatigues standing beside an armored vehicle.

We walked toward them, with our KPCC IDs out, yelling "Press! We're reporters!"

They waved us away, so we kept identifying ourselves as reporters. Chava took one step closer, and one of the officers pointed his rifle at him.

We backed away with our hands in the air. They didn't shoot.

At the protest in the Fairfax District the previous day, Chava, who is Latino, had been struck by a police officer with a baton. I wondered if, there in the alley, my whiteness had something to do with us getting out of the situation safely.

I tweeted about what happened, and our editor called us and told us to get out of there. So we did. We walked back toward my neighborhood, noting that the busted storefronts and broken glass extended well beyond the downtown area.

A block from my house, two cars made a wild, uncontrolled swerve around a corner, as police shot in their direction (I'm not sure what exactly they were shooting). An officer ran up to us afterwards asking if we had seen the driver. He said the driver had tried to run him over.

I ducked into an alcove once again. Five minutes later, I was home and Chava was on the road. My boyfriend said I seemed very calm. But for three hours, I felt amped. I had heart palpitations. I couldn't relax.

The next morning I woke up, ate a banana, and headed back into downtown to survey the damage.

THE CLEANUP

The streets were filled with people carrying brooms, dust pans, solvent and sponges. Women were bent over picking glass out of bushes. Teenagers scrubbed graffiti off mailboxes. Men walked around, handing out bottles of water and snacks.

I stopped to talk to a group of four women, who were picking up trash and sweeping up piles of glass. Two of them started crying as they described how terrified they had been during the looting the previous night and why they joined in the cleanup this morning.

"We decided that rather than just sitting back and watching it happen, we wanted to do something to help," one woman said. "We take it personally, because we've lived here so long."

I walked toward the homeopathic pharmacy on Broadway where I'd begun my day on Sunday. One of the employees was standing outside talking to a young woman holding a broom.

The woman, who was black, said she'd seen the citizen cleanup crews removing George Floyd graffiti, and it bothered her.

"Some people just don't get it," she said.

Minutes later, I passed the Citizens Bank where, the day before, I'd seen a woman spray paint, "Black Lives Matter." It was gone, back to a clean, white wall.

When I'd first arrived downtown, I'd been moved nearly to tears by the mass of people who'd turned out to support small businesses and help clean up. It was an incredible example of social cohesion, and such a contrast to the chaos I'd witnessed the day before.

But the longer I stayed downtown, the more uncomfortable I felt. It occurred to me that, in their zeal to heal a wounded Santa Monica, the cleanup crews were erasing the protesters' message. Erasing their pain, and their anger.

I also realized that I hadn't yet had time to process what I'd seen the day before. I passed an alley that looked like the one where the police officer had pointed a rifle at Chava and me. I started crying. But I didn't want to touch my face, because of the coronavirus, so I just let my nose run into my homemade mask.

THE COMPLAINT

When I got home, I saw I had an email criticizing how I'd covered Sunday's protest.

"As a longtime KPCC listener, I'm very saddened by your report," it read.

The listener went on to say that, around 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, while talking live on air with a KPCC host, I had conflated protesters with people looting.

I was taken aback, because the whole time I was in downtown Santa Monica, I obsessed over how to fairly and accurately describe the chaos and vandalism I was seeing, knowing that not far away, an entirely different group of people was protesting.

But listening back, my critic was right. I'd said, "I hear that there is a more peaceful protest going on a few blocks away at the pier. But what I'm seeing right here is people breaking glass, breaking into a van door."

It was that single word: more. A word I didn't even notice I'd said. A word that, to me, was filler. But to the listener, it was biased.

It's that simple to get it wrong.