USA

Looters who hit L.A. stores explain what they did: 'Get my portion!'

The young man flanked the shattered entry of a ransacked CVS in Santa Monica, where people had swept the shelves clean of everything from diapers to detergent. The man, who did not cover his face, admitted he was a looter. He did not apologize.

“We’ve got no other way of showing people how angry we are,” he said.

Out of the store ran another young man, this one holding a carton of eggs. He grabbed a friend and started scanning the street for targets: police cars. “We’re doing it because we can,” he said.

Over in Van Nuys, a teenage boy standing outside a ravaged Skechers store held up a backpack. That was all he took. But it was enough, he said.

“We are just trying to provide and take up the opportunity that we are getting right now. That’s all.”

In the unprecedented reaction to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, peaceful protest marches across Southern California in the last week have already dramatically changed the debate about police brutality and race relations.

But the massive demonstrations have been accompanied by looting in some cities around the Southland. Authorities believe most of the thefts and vandalism came from people not directly connected to the protests who used the teeming crowds as cover to steal merchandise.

Some of the looting appears to be organized, with groups driving around hitting multiple stores. For others, it was an outgrowth over the deep anger and frustration about the way blacks and others are mistreated, and they cited a host of other issues: President Trump, the privilege exposed in the college admissions scandal, and widening inequality.

“If Donald Trump is saying shoot us tonight, that is not giving us no leeway,” said a teenager holding the stolen Skechers backpack Monday in Van Nuys. “That’s just making things worse. If that’s giving permission for the police to shoot children, innocent teenagers, things like that, that’s not right.”

Times reporters interviewed people of different races and backgrounds who stole from stores over the last few days. The looters, unwilling to risk prosecution, declined to provide their names.

Hundreds of stores were hit over a three-day period, in many cases broadcast on live television. The stealing was largely limited to a few business districts including Fairfax, Santa Monica’s shopping district, parts of Long Beach, downtown Los Angeles, Van Nuys and Hollywood. Merchants — already reeling from coronavirus closures — were left with battered stores and even more losses. They and others expressed alarm at how the stealing was able to go on so long before police arrived.

Some have argued that too much attention is paid to the looting, which they say distracts from the powerful political movement fueled by Floyd’s killing. Yet the images had a larger symbolism.

“Part of it is simply an assertion of power. Riots nearly always have a carnival aspect because people who for nearly all their lives have felt under the thumb of other groups suddenly have a sense of power,” said Stephen Reicher, who studies crowd psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“People who have been invisible and whose situation has been ignored all their lives suddenly become visible.”

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Looters ransack a clothing store on Pine Avenue in Long Beach on Sunday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Some looters have often been strategic, hitting high-end spots such as Nordstrom and the Apple Store at the Grove and the trendy retail strips of Melrose and Fairfax.

Many looters appear to be working in caravans that methodically block off certain streets with their vehicles, which serve as getaway cars for those running off with merchandise.

Those tactics were on display on Sunday in Santa Monica, where teams of young people ransacked some stores completely clean within minutes as protesters marched nearby. Others returned again and again throughout the afternoon to the same stores for more.

Some paused on the street to distribute the goods among themselves or stuff them in backpacks, suitcases or boxes.

“Get my portion! Get my portion!” one man shouted as looters hammered and kicked an ATM at Ye Olde King’s Head Gift Shoppe.

The looters, most of them wearing dark colors and bandanas or masks, blended in among crowds already wearing face coverings because of the coronavirus. They seemed to know one another and were fast and coordinated, calling out commands.

“The jewelry store!” one looter screamed, announcing the next destination. At Santa Monica Jewelry and Loan, the sound of gunshots erupted when looters attempted to break in. They fled.

Two security guards could be seen through the broken glass, guns drawn.

Some appeared to be spontaneously joining in, taking what was left of the destroyed businesses.

At a vandalized 7-Eleven, a homeless man approached the store, his jaw dropping in awe of the scene. He walked in and carried out a beverage.

A South Los Angeles man who was tagging along with a group of looters Sunday afternoon said he had been in Santa Monica just to get something to eat. But when he saw the protests forming, he decided to jump in.

The man, who didn’t want to share his name for fear of legal repercussions, said looters didn’t concern him.

“The real answer is everybody knows this world works for white people. They do anything and get away with it.”

He cited the college admissions scandal that has resulted in short prison sentences for wealthy white people. If that had been him, the punishment would have been more severe, he said.

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The anger at inequality is not uncommon among business owners, many of whom are people of color.

Eddie Perez, 22, whose father owns a smoke shop in Hollywood, felt so strongly after Floyd’s killing that he joined protesters at a march on Monday.

But soon after looters ripped apart wooden boards and broke through the glass at the store, destroying it within 45 minutes. The pipes, hookahs, souvenirs, T-shirts and snacks inside couldn’t be salvaged, even though some were left behind.

His father, a Guatemalan immigrant who swept floors and did construction work for decades before saving enough money to open the store three years ago, lost $20,000 worth of merchandise.

The family of activists had put a “Justice For George Floyd” sign in the window of the store before it was ransacked.

“I’m just very angry at the fact that we are a minority-owned business and we stand so much with the movement,” Perez said. “It destroyed my trust in the world for that day.”

Still, Perez said he understood why the looting occurred, even if he doesn’t justify it.

“People are angry. People are tired. The Rodney King situation happened how long ago and this is still happening?” he said. “It’s hard, but I comprehend the reasons as to why they broke into all these places.”

Some shopkeepers expressed outrage over Floyd’s slaying, but felt that nothing excuses criminal behavior and that looters should face consequences.

Joe Green, owner of Broadway Wine and Spirits in Santa Monica, said he was lucky that his family-owned store experienced only one broken window. Green fended off looters, aided by his customers and neighbors. When he called the police, he said he was told that no one was coming.

“I think there needs to be stiffer penalties. You have to pay for your actions,” said Green, noting that businesses have already been struggling because of the pandemic.

“Peaceful protesting is great. But rioting and looting and vandalizing? No. Burning businesses down? That’s not the answer.”

AJ Lovelace tries to stop looters from breaking into a Walgreens store at Santa Monica and Highland.

AJ Lovelace tries to stop looters from breaking into a Walgreens store at Santa Monica and Highland. “We need peace, and we need someone to talk to each other,” he said after the looters fled.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

For 30 uninterrupted minutes Monday night, the looters roamed along the strip of stores just below Sunset on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, breaking into numerous businesses. Many had work gloves, face masks or bandanas wrapped around their heads. Some carried backpacks or trash bags. One woman had blue medical scrubs. Some toted bats.

This account is based on video reviewed by The Times, which showed a chaotic scene at the fringes of the demonstrations nearby. Despite the heavy police presence in the neighborhood, only one police car was seen in the video, apparently responding to another call. Over a half hour, the looters went unchecked.

The crowd spent more than 20 minutes trying to bust open an ATM that was snatched from a smoke shop. Two men were successful in prying loose the safe within the machine, and the smashed remnants littered Highland Avenue long afterward. Meanwhile, a psychic’s shop and a barber shop went untouched.

The looters were mostly young and male, some of them teenagers and a few of them middle-aged. There were some women in the group, which was mostly black and Latino.

One of the looters was questioned on the spot by a friend of one of the merchants: Why was everyone out looting?

As the camera rolled, the young man — dressed in a hoodie, with a black mask wrapped around the lower half of his face — spoke of long-simmering frustrations, of white people plundering the black community and appropriating their success.

“We’re tired of being killed,” he said. “We’re tired of laws being passed while they put drugs and guns in our community. They pass laws to lock us up.”

Asked if he was among the demonstrators peacefully protesting earlier in the day, he dismissed the idea.

“Protesting peacefully? We did that in the ‘60s. That didn’t get us nowhere.”

Times staff writers Melissa Etehad and Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.

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