Gunmen guard Pushkin Russian restaurant from looters in downtown San Diego
Every evening this week, a gang of men stand guard outside the Pushkin Russian restaurant in downtown San Diego, armed with shotguns and handguns as activists march through the streets around them. .
Outside the upscale restaurant, the men stand like soldiers – their arms crossed against their chests; feet planted hip-width apart. Inside, two men hold hunting rifles behind a large window facing the street. They have been there every evening since Sunday, keeping the restaurant until the early hours of the morning.
“Hunting rifles must scare (looters),” said Ike Gazaryan, the 36-year-old Armenian owner who is no stranger to war-torn countries. “We keep the handguns inside just in case something like the La Mesa fire collapses.”
As peaceful protests turned into acts of violence over the weekend, Gazaryan said he couldn’t risk damage to his property.
“It took me a while to get to where I am and losing everything to someone else is not something I’m going to do,” he said.
Pushkin, decked out in damask wallpaper and chandeliers, remained dark for more than 12 weeks as his gourmet dishes did not convert well to the take-out rules of the COVID-19 shutdown. The family-run restaurant, desperate to keep its employees working, survived the pandemic by converting into a grocery delivery business during the worst of food shortages. At the time, they were praised by locals who struggled to find essentials on supermarket shelves.
The grocery store was making enough money to keep the employees and the lights on. But Gazaryan said it had never been very profitable, and orders have slowed to a trickle now that supermarkets have returned to normal.
After the rules on on-site dining were lifted, the restaurant was quick to reopen its doors, install security measures, restock its kitchens and resume operations. Four days later, they closed again as protests over George Floyd’s murder cleared the streets of diners.
“When I heard there was going to be protests in downtown San Diego, I was worried,” Gazaryan said. He had watched banks and small businesses burn to the ground live on Saturday night and traveled to La Mesa the next morning to see the damage up close.
Gazaryan, who was born Armenian on Azerbaijani soil, has already experienced social upheaval. As a child, his family had to protect his home in Azerbaijan when the territory became the center of political conflict.
“My father and his friends stood firm with guns and protected their homes, while their families slept inside,” Gazaryan said. When his neighborhood was infiltrated, Gazaryan’s family had to flee to Russia as the Soviet Union crumbled around them.
“I have seen a lot of things in my life that made me who I am,” he said. “I’m not easily scared. And I will protect what is mine.
Gazaryan attended protests in downtown San Diego on Sunday to observe the scene. He said it was peaceful during the day, with protesters of all ages marching and chanting. But as the night wore on, many of the protesters left and were replaced by a younger crowd who were doing things they worried about, like throwing bottles at cars.
Gazaryan called on his friends – all immigrants from countries of the former Soviet Union like Uzbekistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan – and a dozen showed up to help him defend Pushkin and the small store in neighbor liquor, owned by a friend. They all brought weapons (legally owned by Gazaryan) in case someone broke into the property.
“I support peaceful protests, but not looting,” Gazaryan said. “Not the collapse of small businesses and the hurt of our city.”
Late Sunday evening, Pushkin’s group of men faced some confrontation. A young man tried to pierce the windows of a nearby business with a hammer. Another young man tried to force Pushkin’s front door, then picked up stones and threw them against the windows.
San Diego Police said Monday that nearly 100 people have been jailed after violent outbreaks were reported Sunday night. Among the looted stores were a CVS store, a 7-Eleven store and an AT&T store, police said.
Gazaryan said it opened Wednesday evening for the first “normal” shift since March. But he only did about 20 or 30 percent of his habit.
“The buildings are barricaded all around me,” he said. “The locals see it walking around and they don’t want to go out. There are no tourists, no conventions and no attraction to the city center. It looks like Baghdad in 2003.
Other events are planned for Saturday. Gazaryan said he was ready to protect his restaurant again, but was tired of walking on water.
“I put food on our table, but the money we made with the groceries is long gone,” he said. “I’m back to where I was with the coronavirus.”