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City officials denounce Town Center vandalism, laud peaceful protest

City officials denounce Town Center vandalism, laud peaceful protest

Santa Maria city officials on Monday denounced the vandalism that damaged the Santa Maria Town Center Sunday night following a sanctioned protest, and stated that such destruction will not be tolerated.

Protesters gathered at 1 p.m. Sunday for a peaceful protest and march opposing police brutality and the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis last week after a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes. 

However, individuals who arrived later in the evening ignored the focus of the protest, charging the Town Center and breaking windows in Macy's and Red Robin, with some entering the mall and taking clothes from retail store Rue 21. 

Despite the damage, the mall reopened as scheduled on Monday, although some stores remained closed for the time being. 

"They hit our store, ours was the only one who got hit ... They broke our doors and took a bunch of our merchandise, mostly jeans and stuff, all replaceable stuff. But they came in and grabbed what they could," Rue 21 manager Miranda Vepeda said. 

She said the store is still hoping to open next week after repairs are completed.

Arroyo Grande resident Jimmy Vargas, who was in the downtown area Sunday night, said he chased the protesters and saw them smash the windows at Macy's, and after seeing the entrance blocked by gates, saw them smash the windows at the Red Robin restaurant to enter the mall. 

"Everybody took off in a dead sprint towards the mall ... I was with my wife and 12-year-old daughter and we ran after them and I saw the guys smashing the Macy’s window," he said. "They went back and I thought they’re going for the Red Robin, by the time I got there the door had been smashed and people were already in [the mall]."

Vargas said he began praying out loud and pleading with individuals entering the mall not to participate in the looting, with his wife, Rachel, and daughter, Alicia, also admonished members of the crowd. 

"There I was rebuking and calling upon their nature, I was appealing to them, saying, 'This has nothing to do George Floyd,' and then I went in on them with, 'This is our city,'" Vargas said. 

He said although some continued to enter the mall and carry out clothes from Rue 21, he was surprised to see some people turn away. When police arrived the crowd eventually dissipated.

Response from city officials

At a Monday press conference, Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino praised the peaceful gathering earlier Sunday and spoke out against those who caused vandalism, implementing a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. city curfew through June 8. 
 
"I thank the community members who use their First Amendment rights to protest peacefully. These protests don’t give voice to the voiceless, everyone has a voice. But the people who chose to destroy property distract from those trying to share their voice," Patino said. 

In addition to destruction at the Town Center, Patino specifically denounced protesters who took down the American flag outside of City Hall on Sunday night. The flag was retrieved and hung back up by other community members. 
 
"I know I speak for everyone standing up here, that we can’t believe it is happening here in Santa Maria," she said. 

Santa Maria Police Chief Phil Hansen said the police decided to stay back during Sunday's peaceful protest and manage traffic. 

Officers intervened after the destruction began at the Town Center, he said.

"We don’t want to inflame anybody; we know there are some raw emotions, so we don’t want to get too close and start a confrontation. The idea was to hang back and do traffic control and monitor the situation. Fortunately that worked very well for a few hours," Hansen said. 
 
The police chief also quashed rumors on social media of looting and destruction at local Walmart and CVS locations, saying the department was alerted of multiple "red herrings" Sunday evening. 
 
Moving forward
 
Additional demonstrations are planned in Santa Maria, with the Santa Maria-Lompoc NAACP organizing a social justice gathering for later this week to honor George Floyd, branch president Lawanda Lyon-Pruitt said.
 
"We’ve had hundreds of marches and protests, and we’ve never had an incident. We want people to be able to protest and express themselves peacefully, not violently, and be able to come together," Lyons-Pruitt said. 
 

Laura Place covers city government for the Santa Maria Times.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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