By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS and GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Staff Writers
On Monday, Little Tokyo was cleaning up after several days of protests and incidents of looting and vandalism in the wake of demonstrations against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis.
Protesters marched through the Little Tokyo streets carrying signs, echoing similar protests across the country. The peaceful demonstrations gave way to looting in the later hours, even after a curfew was called for all of L.A. County on Saturday night. The county extended curfews again on Monday night.
Brian Kito of the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association said he received a call about reports of looting at 2:15 a.m. on Sunday from a resident of AVA, a residential complex on Second and Los Angeles streets.
Seven-Eleven, RIF-LA, Sweat Yoga Little Tokyo, Clayson, a gift store that sells collegiate apparel, and Little Tokyo Pharmacy in Honda Plaza were damaged, along with Maneki Neko and Oomasa in Japanese Village Plaza.
Video taken early Sunday morning showed the windows being smashed at RIF-LA. Among the prime targets for looters in this wave of unrest have been shoe stores, notably those that sell high-end or collectable athletic footwear.
Both of Jeffrey Malabanan’s shops on Second Street – one that features clothes, the other, highly coveted shoes – were broken into and looted over two consecutive nights.
“The first night, I got a call about 3 a.m.,” Malabanan explained while leisurely sipping an iced tea. “I got down here to my clothing shop and people were still coming in and out, just looting my store.”
Kito expressed concern that the close proximity of Little Tokyo to City Hall and LAPD headquarters would leave it vulnerable during civil unrest. During the L.A. riots in 1992, windows were smashed at Japanese Village Plaza, Weller Court and what was then the New Otani Hotel on Los Angeles Street.
On Sunday evening, Kito sent his volunteers home and stayed at the Koban on First Street near San Pedro until approximately 11:30 p.m. He noted that it was quieter than Saturday night and he welcomed the presence of the National Guard, which was called up by Mayor Eric Garcetti on Saturday.
“Really happy that yesterday morning we saw the Army National Guard reserves. I hope they would start stationing them as a perimeter around City Hall and extend to Little Tokyo,” Kito said. “These guys coming to loot our areas are organized. We need guys that are stationary at different areas at street corners.”
On Sunday night, the same cars used by those that had robbed and vandalized Little Tokyo stores the previous night were spotted once again. There were caravans of young males circling the district, looking for anything to break into, but it was the heavy police presence that deterred them. Looters entered Shoe Palace to grab more merchandise, perhaps unaware of the heavy law enforcement presence. The earlier morning period ended in two arrests.
In response to the unrest, Little Tokyo Business Improvement District has expanded its coverage to 24 hours to include the curfew period.
With police responding to different hot spots in downtown, security guards stepped up their patrols and were assigned to various organizations and facilities throughout Little Tokyo, coordinated by LT BID safety patrol commander Michael James.
At Japanese Village Plaza, an attempted break-in at PopKiller on Second Street was thwarted by JVP security guards. Police identified the looters as opportunists who arrive in cars, steal as much as they can, and drive off. It is believed they were not part of the protests earlier in the day.
Patricia Wyatt, president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, said there was no damage at JACCC.
“It was the combined efforts of our own on-site security, which we increased to 24 hours, and Michael James of the LT BID,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt emphasized the importance of addressing the issues of racism and inequality that have sparked the demonstrations nationwide. On Saturday, JACCC posted on Instagram a message in support of the protesters: “We wholeheartedly stand with the Black community and believe that Black lives matter and deserve justice.
“Businesses in Little Tokyo were looted last night. This was not done by protesters but by people who decided to take advantage of the grief and angst of others for their personal gain.”
Wyatt said the JACCC wants to be part of a dialogue on inequality, noting the long history that is represented by the historic downtown neighborhood.
“Our plaza is a very large open public community space in downtown L.A. and it was designed by Isamu Noguchi, an internationalist, and so we want to use the plaza he designed to say we stand together for the good treatment of all,” Wyatt said.
Sean Miura, Little Tokyo resident, producer and curator of Tuesday Night Café, expressed concern that the message of protest against police brutality in the African American communities is being lost in coverage of looters. Miura drove by a protest organized by Black Lives Matter at Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax District.
“I think people are outraged at the continued excessive use of violence by the police, especially in black communities,” Miura said. “We as Japanese Americans have to remember we came to seek opportunity in a system built on slavery and stolen land. For us, we have benefited from that system.”
“It’s a complicated, hard moment but we have to start from the history,” Miura said.
A Double Whammy
The unrest has been a terrible double whammy for businesses in Little Tokyo already struggling under the closures brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Good people are protesting. It’s a shame that, as our security people said, there are so many knuckleheads taking advantage and harming the people who are already suffering so much,” Wyatt said. “I worry about the small business owners in Little Tokyo and throughout L.A. and Southern California who worked so hard to build these mom-and-pop businesses and this violence may well destroy them. We can’t stand by and let that happen.”
Over at RIF-LA, since Malabanan and partner Ed Mateo bought the sneaker store from Kai Nagakusa in 2006, the market for collectible athletics has skyrocketed. From the average fan to pro sports and music stars, the drive to add the rare pair and the latest Air Jordans is insatiable.
Little Tokyo has become somewhat of a hub for shoe enthusiasts and collectors. Just a few doors west of RIF are Jason Markk, an outlet for premium accessories and sneaker cleaning, and Shoe Palace, which Malabanan said was completely wiped out Saturday night.
When he arrived in the wee hours to find criminals stealing away his livelihood, Malabanan said his first instinct was to defend his store, but he wouldn’t take that stand again.
“I made an impulse move, and just sat there with a bat, but that was kind of stupid,” he said. “I was face-to-face with the looters, and a lot of them had knives and guns. They didn’t try anything, but I wouldn’t try that again, thinking about it and seeing what’s going on around the world. I could have died, so they can just take it. At least I go home to my three kids and I’m alive.
“At first, I was mad at the world, mad at everybody, but as soon as I got home to my kids, it all went away. I understand what’s going on. Take what you want. As long as I’m not hurt, that’s all that matters.”
Malabanan’s business is insured, but he concedes the settlement will likely not come close to matching his losses. Undaunted, he vows his shop will reopen as soon as possible.
“I love Little Tokyo. We’ve been here for 14 years, and we’re going to stay here forever.”
— Additional reporting by ELLEN ENDO