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L.A., wracked by looting and upheaval, turns yet again to the National Guard

A protester tosses a bottled water on a California Highway Patrol vehicle as other Black Lives Matter protesters swarm the car during a rally in front of LAPD headquarters to protest the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, on May 28, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was asked the question around 4 p.m. Saturday, as television stations carried feeds of burning police cars: Would he bring in the California National Guard to restore order?

Garcetti said he had spoken with Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier that day and concluded there was no need. “We got this, Los Angeles,” he said during his live briefing.

Hours later, with looters smashing windows in and around the Grove shopping mall, Garcetti got back on the phone and did what previous L.A. mayors have done when their city is in crisis: ask the governor to send in the Guard.

Garcetti asked for 1,000 troops, a mayoral aide said, with half going to assist the Sheriff’s Department and half helping the LAPD, which spent the weekend responding to massive protests, outbreaks of vandalism and various forms of upheaval.

By Sunday morning, scores of Guardsmen toting M-4 rifles could be seen patrolling streets between skid row and Bunker Hill. In combat gear, they stood guard outside shattered storefronts and graffiti-tagged buildings, where windows had been shattered and the street strewn with trash. Humvees and military trucks were present in the city in a way not seen since 1994, in the days after the Northridge earthquake.

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For some, the spectacle was unnerving. On Sunday afternoon, scores of troops had formed a partial perimeter around City Hall, which faces the Los Angeles Police Department building and was itself guarded by many police officers.

“I think it’s provoking fear in people’s hearts,” said Diamond Evans, 23, who sat on a nearby bus bench. “I feel the same way about the curfew. Psychologically, it feels like a war — a war against the people.”

The mayor’s decision to bring in the National Guard also drew criticism from Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents a portion of South Los Angeles. “Our fear is real that additional law enforcement will only further violence against people of color,” he said on Twitter.

Harris-Dawson declined an interview request from The Times. But Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents stretches of Beverly Boulevard, Fairfax Avenue and other commercial areas hard hit by looting, said the LAPD needed additional help in tackling the ongoing crisis.

Koretz said he contacted Garcetti late Saturday afternoon — an hour or two after the mayor’s briefing — and told him the city needed a more expansive curfew and help from the National Guard. By midnight, looters were treating one computer store in the area like “a McDonald’s drive-through,” Koretz said.

“We clearly were overrun, even with the LAPD deployment,” he said.

Garcetti, for his part, said the National Guard would not be sent to the LAPD’s South Bureau, which covers several neighborhoods in Harris-Dawson’s district. And he insisted the deployment was not to instill fear in the public, but to provide security to businesses that already had been looted and were especially vulnerable.

The National Guard will “secure places that aren’t secure because of the looting in downtown and other parts of L.A.,” he said.

Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the state’s Office of Emergency Services, confirmed that the Guard had been sent to neighborhoods already secured by local police, freeing up LAPD officers to monitor ongoing demonstrations. The Guard’s deployment would also focus on protecting critical infrastructure, such as electrical substations and water treatment plants, he said.

In Pershing Square, Guardsmen holding machine guns stood in clusters of two or three, smiling and waving.

Kathy Gomez, 20, said she felt less safe after seeing the heavy weaponry carried by the Guard. “They could use those against the people here,” she said.

The arrival of armed troops evoked images from past emergencies in L.A.

In 1965, California Highway Patrol officers pulled over a black motorist in South Los Angeles, igniting a confrontation that quickly spiraled out of control. By the time the National Guard showed up two days later, Watts was burning, stores had been looted, and residents had been fighting police.

Peace was restored almost two weeks later, after 13,000 troops from across the state had converged on the city.

Almost 30 years later, Mayor Tom Bradley requested that the National Guard be deployed after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Within hours of that verdict, demonstrators had begun looting stores, torching buildings and taking to the streets with guns.

Gov. Pete Wilson responded by sending 2,400 members of the National Guard. Police Chief Daryl Gates admitted that year that the city’s police force had not been prepared.

The Guard returned in 1994, after a 6.7 earthquake left more than 1,000 buildings destroyed and 20,000 residents homeless. Convoys rumbled through the San Fernando Valley, patrolling mini-malls and parks to deliver water, deter looters, direct traffic and raise tent cities for 6,000 displaced residents.

In recent weeks, the Guard had been sent to L.A. County nursing homes hard hit by coronavirus.

The latest deployment in L.A. drew objections from the ACLU of Southern California, which criticized Garcetti for inviting in those troops. Peter Bibring, the group’s director of police practices, said demonstrations over the last week have been fueled by a concern over aggressive policing, and often militarized policing, that “dehumanizes black communities.”

“Deploying the actual military to police the streets of L.A. in response to these concerns just doubles down on the problems that gave rise to the protests,” he said.

Police Chief Michel Moore acknowledged that there is symbolism to having people in military uniforms patrolling the city. But he argued that members of the Guard are regular citizens — bookkeepers, construction workers, accountants and Angelenos — called up in a crisis.

Within hours of their arrival, the troops succeeded in stopping suspects from “victimizing businesses” that had been damaged and looted, Moore said.

Joseph Merchain, who watched Guardsmen assemble outside City Hall on Sunday, also did not object to their arrival. After all, he said, “there’s all this chaos now.”

“I think it’s necessary that they be here,” the 22-year-old said. “Because we don’t want to see these buildings burning.”

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© 2020 the Los Angeles Times