For almost five decades, Santa Monica Music Center was an oasis of arts and education that gave all walks of life the opportunity to bond over melodies.
But in the riots that reached Santa Monica on Sunday, almost everything inside was damaged or pilfered as the distraught owners looked on, and those who tried to defend the building had guns and other weapons pulled on them with no law enforcement to be found.
“It was just a horror movie,” Lana Negrete, 40, who now co-owns the center with her father Chico and runs the business with her husband. “They took everything from us, and no one stopped them. It was so violating.”
Nestled on 19th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, the center – started in 1972 by Cuban-Spanish brothers Paul “Chico” and Victor Fernandez – rented out musical instruments at low costs to local schools and anyone looking to learn who couldn’t afford to buy their own. Its upstairs music school brought together a vast spectrum of the southern California community from the low income and the struggling, to the young and the old, and to those who wanted to learn anything from Beethoven to Beyonce to the Beetles and beyond.
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But its future is now uncertain.
The calamity unfolded in broad daylight just after 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. Negrete and her husband were at the beach with their two daughters, 10 and 12, when they saw that one of the girls’ bike tires had been slashed.
That was something of an omen of what was soon to come as the family made their way east toward their beloved business.
“We heard windows being smashed. I saw a woman with snakeskin pants with her face pressed up against the glass of our store, and then she called a group over,” Negrete recalled, bringing to life every elastic second of her ordeal. “I saw them trying to get in, and I just started screaming and honking the horn.”
A neighboring business owner of a small pharmacy advised them to stand guard outside as a deterrent – he was already donning an AR-15 and bulletproof vest – and Negrete called a group of friends who immediately came to the scene.
“We went in and started hiding what instruments we could, we moved a refrigerator to barricade the door, and we wrote ‘minority-owned’ across the front,” she said. “But soon, it started with groups of five. Then groups of 10 – most with backpacks on skateboards and machetes and hammers in their hands started coming toward the center.”
A few minutes later, when Negrete dared look again, from every direction, there were hundreds of people barreling toward them in a scene she depicted as “pandemonium.” There were cars speeding up to the center – including brand new luxury Mercedes SUVs and Infiniti vehicles – with trunks popping open ready to be filled with loot, and while it was mostly young men, every ethnicity and age assaulted the building before her eyes.
“I saw 16-year-old girls in designer clothes stealing, I saw a woman with a small child in the back drive up and push her 13-year-old son, who looked nervous, out of the car to go in and steal,” Negrete said. “There were just so many groups of people there who had nothing to do with the George Floyd protests. Parents there stealing with their children.”
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Calling 911 proved to be futile. According to the frightened Music Center owner, they were informed that police could not get to the scene, and if they were registered gun owners, they could protect their private property. However, California has some of the strictest gun legislation in the country, including magazine limitations and a 10-day waiting period after purchase.
The violence only escalated as more and more looters descended.
“There were gunshots fired, and those trying to help us had guns pulled on them,” Negrete tremored. “One of the guys got out of his car and looked at my friend’s baseball bat and said, ‘what the f*ck you going to do with that?’ and pulled out his gun. Another friend had a gun put in his face and was called a f**got-ass b*tch.”
Tons of bricks were also used to smash windows in and around the area. Negrete observed that bricks are typically placed underneath trash cans earlier in the day ahead of scheduled protests, and when the looters arrive, they know where they are and put them to use to terrorize.
In the end, and over the course of many hours, criminals had a field day taking dozens of cells, trumpets, bases, amplifiers, speakers, and random merchandise, including t-shirts–of which every one sold goes towards giving a child in need a private music lesson. But if that wasn’t enough, the looters also went about destroying the cash registers, smashing display cases and busting up furniture.
“It wasn’t just about taking the stuff. It was absolute anarchy,” Negrete noted. “They don’t know who they are stealing from; we don’t make much money, we’re low-income ourselves. We give back to charities every month even though we don’t have much money ourselves.”
Just two days before the looting, the Santa Monica Music Center had unlocked its doors for the first time in almost three months following the stringent lockdown orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, and at least part of the business was readied to start again.
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As of Wednesday, Negrete said, the police still had not come to take a report.
“They told me it would take two or three weeks,” she lamented. “And I even have a cell phone here from one of the looters.”
She also pointed out that cellos and other instruments they believe to belong to them have started cropping up on Craigslist.
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But as the Negretes attempt to clean up and piece their lives back together, with the help of music teachers who have been with them for decades and are akin to family, it is unclear when or if their doors will open again. She said 80 percent of their business has been obliterated, and right now, it’s a fight between the landlord and the insurance over who is responsible for paying for what.
“I’m struggling, and I have a family to feed too, and we don’t qualify for any help from the government,” she added, her voice breaking into tears. “We are tax-paying, hard-working people. This isn’t just stuff to us. This was everything we had.”