WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA — A day spent in peaceful protest turned destructive Saturday night in Los Angeles’s Fairfax District as widespread looting damaged restaurants and shops already struggling under the weight of the coronavirus shutdown. Cars and buildings were set ablaze, a scene many residents never thought to see in their neighborhood. On Sunday morning, many grabbed gloves, brooms and did what they could to clean up after a night of chaos.
Tom O’Connell, a 20 year resident, woke to a trash-littered street. Blue Adidas boxes, from a looted shoe store, were scattered across his Laurel Avenue front yard and across the asphalt. Taking his dog for a walk, he followed the detritus to Melrose Avenue, and saw what happened when tensions snapped overnight.
He was met with graffiti and shattered storefronts. Rioters had ravaged stores until there was nothing left.
Their frustration was palpable.
O’Connell, a father of three, had joined hundreds on Saturday Pan Pacific Park a short distance from his Melrose area home.
“The protest was beautiful, in support of the cause,” he tells us. “The keynote speaker addressed the crowd, asking anyone who has lost someone to police violence to say their name out loud.
More than a dozen spoke out, O’Connell said.
“I had goosebumps,” he says. “Here we are at our little park, and people fed up with leadership, with the situation, all joined together in peaceful protest.”
According to O’Connell, the rally was a call to action, not the destruction they witnessed overnight.
They encouraged those present to get out, do what you can as an individual, to cast your vote, make your voice heard, to get up and make change happen, he said.
As the sun arced in the west things took a turn.
At the intersection of Beverly and Fairfax, someone set a police car on fire.
“It got rowdy, there was a change,” O’Connell tells us. He got out of there and went home to wait it out, a few blocks away.
Like most Southern Californians, the O’Connell family watched on television as the Fairfax District’s peaceful protests over George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minnesota police officer evolved into something else.
What began with signs and chants grew defiant in the face of uniformed police dressed in riot gear. After sunset, Saturday, protesters lashed out. Not against the uniformed officers, or the armored vehicles that rolled into the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. They lashed out against the stores, many of which are minority owned.
O’Connell captured pictures of littered side-streets of his area home.
Saturday night, he’d heard the voices, the screeching of tires, the sounds of fleeing. After 10 p.m., the helicopters left.
The police moved to other districts where there was still something left to protect.
“It was intense from La Cienega to Fairfax,” O’Connell says. “Every third or fourth storefront smashed, gutted of merchandise.”
On Melrose, Reformation women’s clothing store closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, stood as witness to the night before, with shattered glass and tagged windows.
The story was the same up and down the Melrose shopping district.
The tipping point for resident Wendy Nield, who has lived in this area for over 20 years, came with fires at a nearby shoe store. She smelled the smoke. So could her daughters.
Nield’s husband, Ken Berger, joined O’Connell Sunday morning to help sweep up the devastation.
There wasn’t much to be done for the shopkeepers or the building owners, but the family could bring a broom, some gloves, and pile up the devastation. Create some order out of chaos.
For O’Connell, it’s been bad enough with stores shuttered due to COVID-19.
Perhaps the temptation was too high. All of that merchandise, within pane glass view, unattainable as jobs turned to unemployment checks, phone calls for aid, and wondering how to make ends meet.
Some protesters turned into vandals. Then they evolved into looters.
Looting is almost too easy of a word to describe what happened here on Melrose.
Behind the jagged store windows, there is little to nothing left. Shelves are bare.
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The destruction and thefts were indiscriminate. Random.
Did this cool their fury? What will the next several days bring?
Sunday morning brought out the neighborhood, neighbors like Berger and O’Connell, who went into action instead of standing back, helpless.
“I would hope everyone would take a deep breath tonight,” he says. “I understand the frustration.”
In his thinking, we’ve all been pent up for nine weeks because of COVID. They are outraged by police violence, they are terrified about tomorrow, and on Saturday, they hit back.
“I would hope that they’ve got it out of their system, take a deep breath, reset, and focus energy in a positive direction.”