The smell of smoke attacked the nose and the senses as one stepped close to the shopping center on the corner of Haskell Avenue and Vanowen Street in Van Nuys.
It was June 2, and the burn smell was still lingering in the air even after nearly 12 hours. Boarded-up windows, and blackened exterior roofs and walls told the tale of the senseless looting and fires that had reached this corner of the San Fernando Valley amid ongoing civil protests over the death of an African American man in Minnesota at the hands of a white police officer.
For nearly 12 years, Hernan Gonzalez had poured money, sacrifice and effort as co-owner of a Boost Mobile store in the mini strip mall. On the afternoon of Monday, June 1, Gonzalez called the employee working in the shop and told her to close at 5 p.m., and go home so that she wouldn’t be out past the 6 p.m. countywide curfew.
“We closed like any other day and today we have nothing,” said Gonzalez, filled with sadness as he showed a San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol reporter what remained of his store after vandals had looted and then set fire to State Pharmacy next door.
The pharmacy, too, is now boarded up. The darkened inside is an amalgam of shattered glass, debris and ash. Empty, dirty chairs still line up alongside a wall and the ceiling has fallen in. It was not the only medical establishment to be hit by theft. Police reported several pharmacies and a marijuana dispensary in Van Nuys being looted on Monday.
The blaze quickly spread to the cell phone shop, which is not in better shape. It is a mass of blackened walls, with holes in the roof and two inches of water on the floor. A steady stream of water rushes from a pipe. Those responsible for lighting the pharmacy on fire did not loot the store, but the blaze damaged all the merchandise. The water firefighters used to put out the fire even got inside a safe filled with telephones and other accessories in the back room.
“The entire roof came down,” Gonzalez said.
The break room in the back is impassable, as chunks of the ceiling have fallen in.
Gonzales rents the place and doesn’t know when the building’s owner might be able to make repairs.
In all, Gonzalez estimates his losses between $60,000 and $70,000. He only has liability insurance and doesn’t know what that will cover or what happens next.
“Everything’s lost,” he said.
Looting and Chaos
Monday afternoon saw a large peaceful protest at the Van Nuys Civic Center, at the corner of Victory Boulevard and Sylvan Street, with hundreds of people holding signs and expressing their anger over the death of George Floyd, an African-American man, with a white police officer’s knee on his neck. The police officer has been charged with second degree murder.
Floyd’s death, captured on video as he repeatedly told the officer he couldn’t breathe, sparked protests all over the country.
The people protesting here since noon on Monday at the Civic Center had a mostly peaceful demonstration amid a large police presence.
But as it happened in Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles and the Fairfax District in previous days, small groups disbanded from the main protest and began attacking nearby stores, looting a pharmacy and another cell phone store along Van Nuys Boulevard, as well as a Walgreens store on the corner of Sherman Way, and a Big 5 Sporting Goods store across the street.
Javier Tejeda — owner of Ariana’s Party Supply and Gifts, another small shop two doors away from Gonzalez’ cell phone store — saw the group of vandals as they approached the site.
“I saw a little group of about eight come up (on Haskell Avenue) and I closed the doors and the blinds and went to the back,” Tejeda recalled. “They went straight to the pharmacy, did what they did and left right away.”
“What they’re doing is wrong,” Tejeda said of the attacks on businesses. “They should protest peacefully, but there are people (among the protesters) taking advantage to loot and steal.”
Tejeda’s shop suffered only minor damage to the roof. A small grocery store next door was not so lucky and experienced more damage overall.
Gonzalez, who was aware of the protest, never suspected that looters would make it all the way to his store, located two miles away from the main demonstration site. No one in the mini shopping center protected their stores with boards or took any other precautions.
In fact, Gonzalez noted, the area is quite safe and never had major problems before.
“Once in a while someone would come in, grab a phone and take off running,” he said. But it wasn’t a major issue; just part of the risks of doing business with a hot commodity.
Gonzalez admitted he wasn’t paying attention to the live TV feeds following the different protests going on around the Southland on Monday afternoon, including the one in Van Nuys.
“We thought it was going to stay in Van Nuys,” he said, referencing the corner of Victory and Van Nuys boulevards, where the protest started.
At 7:30 p.m., a friend called Gonzalez and told him that the shopping center was on fire.
When he got to the site, police kept him across the street, the firefighters were still trying to contain the conflagration.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says of his first reaction looking at his losses.
The merchandise that survived the blaze and water is now blackened and filled with smoke.
Business Attacks Not Legitimate Protests
Gonzalez doesn’t understand what’s behind the looting of stores and the setting of fires by people who claim to be protesting Floyd’s death.
“These people are crazy, why are we (business owners) to blame for the killing of an African-American man by a police officer?” he said, finding solace in the fact that no one got hurt.
“They should stay home or demonstrate in peace,” he adds, but then makes a distinction between legitimate protesters and criminals.
“These are vandals. They’re not offended over Floyd’s death. These are people who take advantage and steal with impunity,” he said.
Gonzalez also blames President Trump’s rhetoric, which he says is adding to the civil disobedience.
“The President, instead of calming things, is inflaming things,” he said.
And the problems couldn’t have come at a worst time. The store closed for a week when the county first launched emergency restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and had only been running part-time since then.
“The last two months we’ve only made enough to pay rent,” Gonzalez said.
“This leaves six persons without a job. I don’t know how long it will be before they repair the building. It’s five families that no longer have any income,” Gonzalez said.
But as often happens, amidst the dark clouds of looting and damages there was also a ray of sunshine.
Crews of individuals who had seen the damage showed up Tuesday morning, June 2, with brooms and shovels to sweep trash, clean graffiti and pickup debris all along Van Nuys Boulevard. They were volunteers simply trying to help.
Oscar Urrutia was one of the volunteers. He vigorously scrubbed the wall of a looted and boarded Boost Mobile phone store on the corner of Gilmore Street and Van Nuys Boulevard. He had been there since 9 a.m., and was planning to stay there several more hours.
“Right now Van Nuys needs our help,” said Urrutia, for whom it was also a personal issue: his friend is the owner of the looted store.
“We’re just trying to be a good neighbor. They (businesses) are having a hard time as it is, and they need all the help they can get.”
Urrutia was also critical of the looting, which he says has nothing to do with the protests.
“It’s not fair to business owners who have nothing to do with this,” he said.