Hundreds of people turned out to Old Town Temecula Sunday evening to join a candlelight vigil for George Floyd, the black man who died a week ago after having his neck pinned down by a white Minneapolis police officer for more than eight minutes.
The vigil, which was entirely peaceful, was held on the front steps of Temecula City Hall just one day after a tense protest at the Temecula Duck Pond, which was declared an unlawful assembly by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. Six people were arrested at that protest, the sheriff’s department reported today, though the majority of the demonstrators were allowed to leave of their own accord despite the expiration of several 15-minute warnings to leave the area.
While the Saturday protest and a quieter follow-up demonstration on Sunday perhaps stole some of the spotlight from the vigil, it was the vigil that had been planned for much longer.
Skylar Tempel, Temecula Valley Democrats president said his organization’s vice president of political action, Jonathan Chang pitched the idea of putting together the Sunday night vigil a day after Floyd’s death on May 25. Chang went on to emcee the event. Tempel, who is white, said his organization wanted to “give a platform to those who don’t have a voice right now.”
He said his group was at first expecting between 20 and 50 people.
The turnout at the Sunday vigil was at least several times that.
Among those who spoke at the vigil was Pastor Willie Oliver of the Lake Elsinore/Southwest Riverside County branch of the NAACP.
“I want you to understand,” Oliver told those gathered at City Hall, “that I am glad we are here for this vigil. I am glad we took the time to say, ‘I can’t breathe.’ But if you leave with just an emotion, then he (Floyd) died in vain.”
Oliver urged the crowd to shout Floyd’s name and his story “from the rooftop.”
“I need you to remember this. Eight minutes and 46 seconds. Let me hear you say it,” he told the crowd, and listened as they repeated it back to him. “Eight minutes and 46 seconds was the amount of time that that cop had his knee on George’s neck. And he died. They watched, they didn’t care about him.”
Oliver had a final instruction for those at the vigil: “Leave here and every day you wake up, take eight minutes and 46 seconds to make a change in this world.”
Another speaker at the vigil was activist and former NAACP Southwest Riverside County education chairwoman Christina Laster, who asked attendees: “What do you look at when you see me?
“Because what you see when you look at me is what you see when you look at my children. When you look at my son. When you look at my parents. And all of my family and friends who look just like me,” she said. “And so I want to talk about that. Talking about moving beyond what you see when you look at someone and actually getting to know them as a human being.”
One of the vigil-goers, who asked to be identified as Evette R., said she was excited and impressed by the turnout at the vigil.
“Being in the Temecula Valley, we need to come together and recognize that we are a community of people. We are diverse, but we need to be represented,” she said. “And to be here and to show solidarity and to remember and recognize what’s happening.”
The crowds at the weekend’s Duck Pond protests were diverse but skewed young; the City Hall vigil, though, included a higher proportion of people from many different age groups.
One woman, who asked only to be identified by her first name, Stacy, because she said she works for a local school district, said she felt compelled to turn out to the vigil after what she described as years of having her previously-held viewpoints challenged by her daughter.
“I’m 47 years old,” Stacy said, “and our daughter just graduated from college with a sociology degree. She has taught us so much in her years of college and her years of education. And the one thing that I think stands out more than anything is I don’t think we would have ever called ourselves racist but we weren’t good enough at being not racist. That’s what brought us here. It’s time that we all stand together. It’s time that we all do something, because it’s gonna take all of us.”
Asia Cureton came to the protest with two of her friends, saying “I feel like if I want to see a change in my community, I want to get my friends out here.”
One of her friends, Geetika Sharma, said she was there to show solidarity with the Black community and to stand up against racism that she sees in her own community.
“I’m here to kind of represent the South Asian community, because there is a lot of racism in the South Asian community. We should come out and we should support,” Sharma said. “We should come out and let the Black community know we support them.”
Tempel said while the event was initially being planned privately by the Temecula Valley Democrats, the city of Temecula contacted the group on Friday to offer assistance.
“It was at that point city staff reached out saying, ‘hey, we’d like to organize this with you, make sure we’re a cooperative partner with you,’” he said.
Tempel’s group did push back against what it alluded to be behind-the-scenes political posturing from Temecula elected officials on Saturday, though it did not refer specifically to any particular city council member. The group later clarified that it believed city staff and the sheriff’s department had been helpful.
“It has come to the attention of the Temecula Valley Democrats Executive Board that any violence or destructive action taken by attendees of our candlelight vigil to Honor George Floyd at the Temecula City Hall this evening will be blamed squarely and publicly on the Temecula Valley Democrats organization,” the organization said in a statement provided to Valley News.
On Sunday morning, Temecula City Manager Aaron Adams denied any such pressure was being put on the organization and said his city staff and Sheriff’s Department was working with them to provide a safe event.
“I am patently denying any such interference with the organization by the Temecula Valley Democrats Club for this evening’s vigil,” Adams said via email after he was provided the statement issued by TVD. “Further, I know firsthand my office has communicated directly with the organizers in a spirit of cooperation and assistance.
“In addition, I also know firsthand that Sheriff’s personnel has extended the same courtesy. We made this outreach to assure this evening is peaceful and safe for all those who choose to attend.”
Tempel made it clear in a phone call earlier on Sunday that city staff and RSO have been extremely helpful and the organization was not inferring anything to the contrary.
“I would like to make abundantly clear that city staff and police officers have been extremely helpful and supportive throughout all of this,” Tempel said.
Tempel said Riverside County sheriff’s deputies coordinated with him to ensure a peaceful protest, though he said he urged them not to maintain a heavy presence inside the vigil. Deputies could be seen in an area directly outside where the vigil was taking place, and also could be seen staging in a parking lot a few blocks away.
Will Fritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.