Arash Afshar

Photographer, Host of Burner Podcast and Founder of Justified Hype

End of May_7

In order to protect the business from possible looting, on the night of May 31, 2020, I helped board up my uncle’s bike shop in Downtown San Diego.

Well, I didn’t do much of the boarding, honestly. My cousin’s boyfriend, who actually knows what he’s doing, did the real labor. I drove to Home Depot a couple times on supply runs and dropped a wall-sized cut of plywood on my big toe – which continued to throb as I wrote these words a few days later.

My uncle put some extra locks on the more valuable items and turned off the lights to make it seem empty. We attempted to write “family owned business” on the plywood in an effort to appeal to the potential mob’s better angels but ended up abandoning that plan after concluding we’d need bright paint rather than markers. At one point in the evening, my cousin and I took their dog out for a walk and had the opportunity to witness our first looting. A group smashed the glass doors of a CVS on Broadway and various individuals casually caravanned in and out, snagging bottles of alcohol and candy.

We watch in silence. They’re children. None seem to be over 18. They yell out the name “George” as they leave the scene. I want to be irritated and scold them like some cranky old-timer but I’m fully aware that any sense of superiority I may access is really my own privilege. I get to stand here and judge them for behaving badly because I’ve been rewarded by society for behaving well. Through the hard and harder times, things have generally worked out for me. I feel like I’m watching from inside this warm and cozy emotional place, which is a direct result of my own feeling of belonging and connectedness to this place. This country.

I don’t throw my trash on the ground because I see this city as my home and everyone around me as my community. I feel powerful in this physical world. I walk around these streets with a joyful sense confidence. I walk in and out of whatever store I feel like with a fair level of certainty that I’m allowed to be there. That I’m not being scrutinized. That the possibility of being profiled by loss prevention staff is lower.

But these are just kids doing stupid kid shit.

They’re angry and don’t feel like this world belongs to them so the attitude is like “fuck it, I’ll get my cheap thrills where I can.”

I remember what it felt like: to not feel like this place belongs to me. To worry about being stopped everywhere I went in a mall. It’s been a long journey to arrive at this place but that’s a story for another time.

As my cousin and I walk away, we comment on how glad we were to have had the shop windows reinforced.

People around town call my uncle, Mo.

Everyone who knows Mohamad Karimi says of him that he is one of the kindest human beings they’ve ever met. I still haven’t sat down and listened to the detailed version of he and his family’s tense skedaddle from Iran but I’m told that my aunt has a gift for relaying it as a true adventure for the ages. My uncle, Aunt and their infant son made their way through Turkey dressed down in villager garb, traveled through Europe and even briefly considered calling Spain home before eventually landing in San Diego, where Mo drove and owned a couple of taxi cabs until the idea of opening a bicycle shop formulated. Last year his daughter and I attended our British cousin’s wedding in Alicante and chose to do so by way of San Sebastian so that my cousin could set eyes on that other life that might’ve been.

On Saturday night, May 30, 2020, La Mesa was on fire.

My uncle’s family continues to live in the San Diego County suburb of La Mesa, where I mostly grew up. They live in the same house I used to visit before I learned how to speak English. Their’s is one of only a handful of phone numbers I still have memorized. La Mesa is a sleepy place frozen in time in many ways. They still have fabric stores in what they call their downtown and it’s not hard to find white picket fences and homes adorned with those rounded American flags white folks seem to love so much. If towns were living, breathing entities, had hobbies and made Saturday night plans, La Mesa would prefer to stay in and play Scrabble.

Demonstrations sparked by the bullshit death of George Floyd had been on the news. Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and… La Mesa – somehow of all places. The general version of the story I’ve picked up is that passionate protests were mishandled by La Mesa Police Department which quickly devolved into rioting and looting.

La Mesa was the last place any of us imagined would pop off. It was hard to believe. But when water hits the boiling point I guess it doesn’t matter which pot it’s in. My cousin continued to text me updates throughout the night, relaying the sounds of hooting and hollering in the streets outside. The smell of smoke and burning eyes from tear gas which crept it’s way into the surrounding atmosphere. I got to experience tear gas trails myself the following night when I started coughing outside the aforementioned CVS on Broadway.

Seeing how things had played out so close to home was, of course, cause for some alarm when my Uncle Mo learned that there were protests scheduled in Downtown San Diego, where his business resides. The morning after, residents of the area had gotten together and did a pretty bang-up job cleaning up the mess in La Mesa. While that was happening, my uncle and I were headed downtown, where his business, San Diego Bike Shop, has served as a San Diego cycling community hub for 20 years.

We arrived in Downtown San Diego around 3:30 P.M.

Uncle Mo doesn’t live his life in fear. He sees the good in people and prefers to think optimistically. It wasn’t until we saw Hodad’s boarding up their windows (Editor’s note: Best Burger in San Diego. #fightme) that the thought occurred to us that maybe we should do a little more. There were whispers on the streets that some shady characters had been casing some corners, possibly planning to use the cover of protests to strategically loot specific businesses. There was chatter that there are hands pulling puppet stings behind the scenes and that La Mesa was a testing ground to see how much people can be pushed. Who knows. People talk. Sometimes there is legit intelligence to be gathered. Sometimes it’s just a way for people to feel some semblance of control in trying to understand situations far out of their grasp.

As my uncle and cousin’s boyfriend installed the plywood, I took a swing through downtown. This wasn’t my first time seeing law enforcement lined up in riot gear. It’s a scary image. Especially to one who is unfamiliar with the person or people under those protective masks. There are scary sounds and smells. There is an electricity in the air.

There is a rich international history of standoffs between various communities, movements and entities that are basically just political theater. Those where both sides are lined up on the front lines with the specific intention to push the other side into reacting so that more aggressive actions can be justified in the court of public opinion. A twisted tango of ideologies and systems.

I personally know people who have been in the thick of standoffs. Who have held their ground because they felt passionate about the cause or they’d been ordered to. All the while, hoping more than anything, that no one – individuals on the opposing side as well as their own – pushes or starts something. So that everyone can save face and just go home. And then sprinkled throughout all sides are always those who really really do hope someone on the other side does start something.

I wasn’t there to watch how it all played out on this particular scene. By the time I arrived, I only know that tear gas had been deployed and the critical mass of the protest may have already been reached and dissolved. The march hadn’t ended though. Leaders with sky bound fists continued to lead the crowd westbound on Broadway and the police continued to reposition accordingly.

I’ve worked with and photographed law enforcement for years and do have friends on the beat. To pursue a career track in government and public service in the current system, one needs to compartmentalize many aspects of their personal lives and professional identities. I’ve had many personal moments with cops letting their emotional guards down but they’re usually very careful how much they’ll show you. Feeling too much can be psychologically brutal at best and a death sentence at worst on the job.

I am an artist and in my personal life, I run with what might’ve been referred to as counterculture in a previous era. Those who chose less traveled paths before those paths became as socially acceptable as they are in 2020. Ones far away from systems. To pursue this life, artists make a direct decision to live openly, to strip naked and utilize every aspect of our experience in order to push the leading edge of creation. Ours is an existence where having emotional walls up is actually a hindrance to our very livelihood. The more we connect to our feelings the more we thrive.

No one would phrase it this way, but it does feel to me like there is a spark of excitement floating through the crowd. It’s tension but it’s also somehow flow. Something is happening and, dangerous or not, it’s better than the nothing that had been happening for so long.

I watch some guy flip the bird to an SDPD guy in a car. The officer in the vehicle stares back without expression. Maybe he wishes he could beat the living daylights out of this not-so-tough guy. Maybe he’s indifferent because he’s been flipped off plenty of times and this is just another day on the job.

People march with their signs. There is an overwhelming show of force in riot gear and that’s exactly the idea. I imagine there was a resolve that what happened in La Mesa the night before would not be allowed to happen again.

The System, like much of the humanity that created it, functions and exists with the absolute belief that it can bend all reality to its will with enough force.

Uncle Mo’s energy was calm and mixed with just a dash of his signature playfulness.

He’s demonstrating strong leadership to our little unit by keeping the energy light during a time of high tension. “These are the most civilized riots I’ve ever seen,” he half-joked on the ride towards downtown earlier in the night, while we compared notes about what’s been going on in other cities and territories. My mom often remarked that her brother has always been mischievous.

Mo’s no stranger to all this. As a young man in Iran during the 1979 revolution, he has personally experienced what it is to be a young, disenfranchised and filled with anger at a powerful ill-leaning system during a time of civil unrest. The Iranian Revolution, however, included public hangings and they didn’t measure their success by how quickly they could disperse the crowd. He fully understands that looters, rioters and protesters are not to be lumped together. He has a first hand account of the mechanics. At no point in the night did I sense any frustration from him as a small business owner. It was almost as if this day was simply another day at work and the tasks on this particular day simply happened to be that we need to board up the windows.

San Diego Bike Shop has been one of the few constants in my life of independent variables.

One day in my mid 20s, my neighbor and I were sitting on my couch. I don’t remember what year it was or what we were doing, but I do remember that milestone moment clear as day. Because you see, up until that day, I couldn’t say with total certainty that I’d ever felt Joy.

Fleeting moments of laughter and excitement, sure, but I don’t know if any of it amounted to legitimate Joy (yes, with a capital J). The majority of my youth was spent engaged in an intricate chess game with darkness. From 21 and on, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights were allocated to drinking myself stupid enough to trick my mind into temporary believing that I kinda liked myself. I resented feeling like I’d been thrown into a game I never volunteered to play. And for me, it wasn’t this country or government, but all life itself.

I’d been reading that more natural Vitamin D from the sun can help with depression. The beach seemed like a place to do that but a lifetime of hating my body made activity and outings feel like emotional waterboarding. But on this day, I remember the thought hitting me light a flash: “Hey jackass. Your uncle owns a bike shop. You can go bicycling. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” I popped up, turned to my friend and relayed, “I going to go to my uncle’s shop and get a bike because this is how I tell Depression to go fuck itself!”

A couple of hours later I was outfitted with a bicycle and feeling the wind on my face.

Taking in the Pacific Beach sunset on my bike became a regular part of my Saturday routine. Feeling naturally induced Joy became a regular part of my life. When I was little, my uncle gave me my first sip of beer and, as an adult, he gave me my first taste of legitimately enjoying being in my physical body.

Whenever the world shakes, people suggest I should be out there photographing the destruction.

If I’m not on a gig or don’t have a specific story to cover or tell, it doesn’t call to me. Documenting strife doesn’t stir my creative juices. There are many amazing photographers on the streets telling these stories pretty damn excellently. What calls me is unification. Finding the overlapping stories of oneness. Honoring our truest parts, sincerely and honestly, and elevating the best in us. I’ve made it my life’s work to encourage artists to do what they most feel called to. Because we do our best work when we feel in true alignment with it. It’s ok to think a little bit about what we want to say or what we’re moved to create. To carefully consider how we want to contribute to powerful moments in history. The age of social media birthed this running self imposed pressure to immediately publicly take stances on everything. “Opinion FOMO” does more bad than good, in my humble opinion. It’s ok to thoughtfully listen for a while. We needn’t all shout at the same time.

When I shot these images of the protests that night, I concluded that I needn’t add any words. I could let the images tell the story. It was quite fascinating to receive positive feedback from friends very active in the BLM protests as well as active duty law enforcement. If both sides of a thing are telling me that I did it right, then I guess I did it right.

I assure you we are open

Uncle Mo and I ride out of Downtown San Diego after feeling confident the shop is secure.

He shares candidly how his heart breaks for the black community in America. He tells me about how deeply it hurts him to see how they’re treated. How difficult it can be to simply have darker pigment.

The funny thing about oppression is that no one can tell you you’re not being oppressed. In turn, when someone says “you’re hurting me,” you don’t get to respond with, “no I’m not.” One person’s experience with victimization and oppression is not equal to another’s. I’ve felt the anger. I’ve lived the loneliness and rage towards my own oppressors. I’ve been a large scary person of color to white folks. Yet I can never truly know what it is to be black in America. None of us can truly know another’s story. I can only choose to see the best in the world around me and do my best to capture and convey the essence of my subjects’ being.

I’m listening. I’m watching. Hopefully my photos can contribute in some small way to the conversation.

Today is August 19, 2020 and the plywood is long gone.

San Diego Bike Shop remained and remains open for business. In addition to staff wearing masks due to Covid-19, there was, for a period of time, plywood reinforcements on the windows. The shop is struggling to keep inventory due to imports from China having come to a halt at the exact same time that everyone in San Diego decided it’s time to pickup bicycling.

Edit: August 19, 2020. The plywood is back up.

I don’t know all the details yet but there have been multiple break-in attempt and one successful one in the past couple of weeks. I’m told the protests in Downtown are ramping up and there’s more talks of possible riots.

 

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Comments

  1. Michelle Renee August 21, 2020 in 4:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I learned a bit more about you and your experience. We need more of that.

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