Last Sunday in Santa Monica, a day of protests turned into an afternoon and evening of vandalism and looting. But the most wanton acts of destruction occurred in broad daylight as tourists gaped and news cameras rolled. While the full toll of destruction is still being tallied, there are reports that close to 150 businesses were ransacked and around 400 people arrested during the chaos of that day. It’s important to note: what occurred in Santa Monica on Sunday had nothing to do with the official protests. Many have sought to link the two in order to delegitimize the larger movement for their own political gain, but what I observed was different.
I was in Santa Monica that afternoon, on my way to the protests when a caravan of luxury vehicles brimming with passengers arrived on the scene, leaving a strong scent of cannabis in their wake. Instead of heading towards Ocean Avenue, I followed them, believing that something was about to go down. For the next two hours I watched, then filmed, as they surrounded one store after another. There was no pretext of politics to their activities and they certainly weren’t there to protest. Instead, what I witnessed was a well-planned organized heist that used the protestors as a shield and a diversion for their own nefarious purposes.
“Many have sought to link the protests and the looting in order to delegitimize the larger movement for their own political gain, but what I observed was different.”
The convoy finally stopped at the Van’s store on Broadway and Fourth Street, a few blocks away from the site of the protests on Ocean Avenue. Clad in jeans and hoodies, about 25 people spilled out of their autos and onto the street. They appeared to be highly organized. As they fanned across the neighborhood, a few people yelled out orders from inside their idling vehicles, waving this small army from one target to another with military precision. I watched as one group would break into the stores, smashing the windows with their hammers and screwdrivers. When the doors were finally breached, a second group would file in with empty duffel bags and emerge a few minutes later with their bags full. Then they would jump back into waiting vehicles and speed away to the next target.
While it is not clear who may have orchestrated the looting in Santa Monica, police in other cities have suggested that anarchist and white supremacist groups may be linked to similar activity. Some have speculated that the local looting may have been carried out by organized gangs. The relative absence of police from the scene—and their inability to stop the open looting—has since become a topic of heated criticism, with thousand signing a Change.org petition calling for the removal of Santa Monica’s police chief, Cynthia Renaud.
The following is my account of what I saw on Sunday: a view from one block, on one street, in one city, engulfed by unrest and grief.
2:14 p.m. – Arrival
Walking up Fourth Street toward Broadway, I first hear the boom of tear gas canisters being fired. It’s far enough away that there is no smoke. Tiny explosions reverberate through downtown Santa Monica, an ominous welcome to the neighborhood. On Twitter, I read that a small group of protesters has broken away from Ocean Avenue and is making its way to Third Street Promenade. The police, hoping to prevent a repeat of what happened the night before on Fairfax, stands alert.
2:26 p.m. – Vans Store
I first see the familiar red and black boxes strewn in piles outside the smashed storefront. A young woman looking for some checkerboard slip-ons shouts, “Get me a size 11!” Two young men drag one of their friends inside the store, exhorting him to “Get a new board.” It’s a strange sensation to watch a store being looted in broad daylight. The sense of lawlessness creates a weird tear in reality where I feel slightly outside myself, like I’m watching all of this happen in a dream, asking myself and others, “Is this really happening?” But it is real. And the looters come streaming out of the store pushing hand trucks piled high with shoes and clothing. They carry boxes on top of boxes, their arms stuffed to capacity. A woman standing next to the entrance shouts, “Please stop, you’re going to get Trump reelected.” Instead, they leave with backpacks and skateboards and hoodies. The store is quickly picked clean.
2:34 p.m. – Jack’s Jewelers
Traffic on Broadway is thick and slow. A volley of incessant honking breaks the peace. The Spotters sitting in several of the waiting cars stick their heads out the windows and shout warnings and encouragement to the small army on the street carrying crowbars and hammers. The word has gone out that “It’s clear.” A crowd of 20 young men makes a beeline for the jeweler’s storefront, only to be stopped as the sound of approaching sirens spooks the crowd. “Chinese,” somebody shouts—a code word to signal oncoming cops. A car pulls directly in front of the storefront, and out pour more bodies. An older woman, wearing a white sports bra over a purple sweatshirt with sweatpants and flip flops, emerges from the passenger seat and begins directing the activity. It’s the same voice that shouted, “Clear,” and she appears to me to be in charge, quickly organizing the group and shouting instructions. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that the glass is reinforced and the security gate too hard to break or bend. The leader of the pack reluctantly returns to her vehicle and the group moves on.
2:48 p.m. – Crossroads
I shoot a video on my phone as glass flies outwards, almost like it’s been shot. It’s just the ricochet from the crowbar striking the glass door with extreme force. A young man, dressed in red from head to toe, jumps backwards to avoid being coated in shattered glass. Soon the entire mob that just emptied the jeweler reassembles in this popular consignment shop. They emerge wheeling out entire racks of clothing. Even from the outside, you can hear people shouting instructions about what goods to grab, what to leave behind and where to go next. The dull roar of voices and competing horns creates a raucous symphony that can be heard all across this normally quiet seaside neighborhood.
2:51 p.m. – Santa Monica Tobacco
The safety gate is breached and the store entered. The pilfering here seems to be driven by adrenaline—the looters seem more like they are driven by the excitement of the experience rather than by the relatively inexpensive contents of the dusty store, grabbing armfuls of sodas and cigarettes and moving on. An empty box of Swisher Sweets sits orphaned on the curbside; a young man clad in an orange jumpsuit pauses his escape to roll a blunt, which he lights up with visible satisfaction.
2:56 p.m. – Sunny Optometry
The crowd on the side streets off Broadway begins to grow and I lose track of the person I thought was the leader. A navy blue Jaguar stops suddenly. At least four people get out, following the waving of someone guiding them from the sidewalk. Across the window, “Save a Life, Kill a Cop,” is scrawled in white spray paint. They have smashed through the front door and are leaving with armloads of designer sunglasses. A few try on the prescription frames.
2:57 p.m. – Roadrunner Sports
Across the street a new crowd has gathered and appear to be following the woman I observed at the jewelry store. They smash through the window and swarm inside. The crowd emerges with boxes of Nikes, T-shirts, and running shorts; the shot caller waits patiently for her crew to emerge with the real prize from the store—the safe.
3:04 p.m. – Chase Bank
The mayhem and looting now consumes both sides of the street. At the same time, there’s an element of normalcy to the day with people jogging down the street and European tourists having brunch, creating a rather surreal tableaux, this outburst of anarchy juxtaposed against a weekend afternoon in an upscale Westside neighborhood. There are no police anywhere, save for the phalanx of heavily armed riot cops guarding Santa Monica Place. A few shopkeepers stand sentinel in front of their stores and I notice two security guards filming the mayhem on their phones as if for posterity. A small group breaks into a Chase Bank branch. While they initially appear thrilled to have made it inside, they soon seem unsure of what to take. A passerby yells at them to get out, and they quickly disperse.
3:05 p.m. – Jack’s Jewelers
Not surprisingly, this landmark jeweler is a prime target. A determined group spends close to half an hour smashing their way inside the store before they finally succeed in bringing down the reinforced glass and breaching the safety fence. The crowd swarms back across the street into the store and pick it clean. Standing apart from the melee is a woman with two children who appear frozen with fear as they watch the scene. She grips both their hands tightly, the little girl standing astride her scooter with her young son holding a skateboard and staring straight ahead. On the street is the detritus of the afternoon’s looting. There are empty jewelry cases, lone sneakers, and employee badges. A laptop sits smashed on the pavement.
3:09 p.m. – Roadrunner Sports
A group of four carries the store’s safe into the street where a young man in a grey hoodie and black face mask stands on top of it. He seems to be searching for someone. A white Mitsubishi SUV soon pulls up and its occupants quickly get out, grab the safe, and drive away. I can hear shouts and cheers from inside the vehicle. A few doors down at the Jamba Juice, some enterprising looters help themselves to scones and pre-made juice, a kind of anarchic snack time. They stand, laughing and munching—a time out, it seems, from the madness.
3:10 p.m. – Patagonia
A young man wearing a Third Eye Blind tee shirt guides some of the crowd from Roadrunner into Patagonia. They emerge with fleece and GORE-TEX jackets. I hear cheers from the crowd. At this point it has become apparent that the police won’t be stopping the looting. The pace seems to quicken as more stores are vandalized and emptied. The crowd had swelled along Fourth and Broadway, streets hum with people running in and out of stores and back into waiting cars.
3:16 p.m. – REI
A protestor still holding her sign attempts to prevent a group from entering the store. A man carrying a crowbar yanks her sharply by the wrist and pushes her out of the way. He proceeds to smash a hole through the reinforced glass large enough for someone to crawl through and disappears into the store. This is followed by more smashing of glass until they’ve removed enough of it for a stream of people to enter. The outdoor retailer quickly becomes a focal point for the larger crowd who begin smashing the window displays and climbing into the store from the sidewalk. I watch as people emerge with Yeti coolers, tents, stoves, sleeping bags, backpacks, and bicycles. The mood is festive, Christmas in May. A group of cars pulls up alongside the store and piles in the loot. I see bicycles strapped to a roof and a trunk stuffed full. I observe others talking on phones, impatiently shouting directions as if they were waiting for a tardy Uber.
3:40 p.m. – Tar and Roses
With a 4 p.m. curfew quickly approaching, the police, who up until this moment had been focused on the protest, begin to stage one street over. A line of cruisers and a massive armored vehicle closely follow a fleet of motorcycle cops all headed for the locus of the action. This sends hundreds of looters scurrying in all direction with the core group, whose actions I’ve followed all afternoon hopping into their waiting vehicles and driving off.
Meanwhile, a few stragglers continue their journey on to Broadway. At Tar and Roses, a tony restaurant on Fifth Street, I watch people make off with most of the bar; in the process they drop expensive bottles of wine that stain the sidewalk a deep red. A man in a scarlet ski mask stands in front holding a sign that says simply, “Black.” He is pacing in circles shouting, “Karma’s a bitch,” over and over. But no one pays him much attention. There’s too much left to steal. So the crew goes next door to Tru Salon, departing the smashed salon with all the overpriced shampoos and conditioners and hair gels they can carry. Someone from the crowd notices me, reaches for my camera, demanding to know why I am following him and filming. He breaks my reverie and I beat a hasty retreat for my car and walk out of the area.
The scope of the afternoon’s looting only began to sink in after I left the scene. As I walked out of the commercial district and towards my car, the damage was shocking. Store after store had been vandalized and emptied. Now local business owners and neighbors are left to pick up the pieces. Many express solidarity with the protestors, but say they feel abandoned by the SMPD.
In the next few days, as the enormous breadth of the looting became apparent, Andrew Kirschner, chef and owner of Tar and Roses, told Eater, “Santa Monica was targeted. I kept telling myself throughout the coronavirus that Santa Monica was safe. It’s been a ghost town the past few months, why would I need to board up the place and protect it? But I’ll say this: The outpouring of community support is really amazing. Hundreds of people in the streets with brooms, cleaning up, removing graffiti. You do see how the community can rally together.”
The police response to Sunday’s looting has been roundly criticized. “This was a tactical failure on the part of the SMPD,” says Eric Preven, a local activist and former city council candidate. “They were wrongly focused on arresting peaceful protestors while the looters were left to go about their business.” Reached for comment by Los Angeles, a member of SMPD had no official response to the issues raised in this article as they were unauthorized to speak to the press. They did agree to speak on background and offered the following assessment. “These are gang members,” he said based on information ascertained from suspect interrogations and arrestee reports. “They’re highly organized and deadly serious and are using social media to decide where and what to hit.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.