Lake Elsinore on Wednesday became the latest city in southwest Riverside County to host protesters decrying the death of George Floyd, the black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes last month.
And despite concerns about rioting expressed by a number of downtown Lake Elsinore business owners — some of whom went so far as to board up their windows ahead of the afternoon rally — the protesters showed themselves to be entirely peaceful.
Prior to the demonstration, Lake Elsinore Mayor Brian Tisdale said the city would not allow anyone to “hijack us, to hold us hostage, because they want to do bad things,” and that while he acknowledged there had not been any rioting in the Temecula Valley region, “we want to be prepared.”
One local business owner who did not want to be named because he feared he could be retaliated against, said he decided to board his business up after receiving texts from friends warning him to be prepared for rioting, and that he called the sheriff’s department Wednesday morning to ask for their recommendations.
“They said that they don’t know of anything real serious that’s going to happen, but it’s a personal choice if you want to board up or not,” the business owner said. “Because I want to be sure, because I got texts by people that have businesses that know me, and they wanted me to know that if you want to board your place up, you should do it.”
That wasn’t the sentiment of all local businesses.
“I don’t feel that boarding up things is going to affect or help anything,” said Destiny Caballero, assistant manager at Felix’s BBQ with Soul on Main Street in Lake Elsinore. “That just shows fear. And we are an independently African-American owned business and we don’t want to show fear. We are here to be a part of the public, a part of the people. If it comes to us, I will dial 911, I’m sure an officer will come, but we are here just on behalf of the people.”
And very early on in the protest, demonstrators made it explicitly clear that they were not seeking to negatively impact any of the nearby businesses, nor confront any of the dozens of Riverside County sheriff’s deputies who were monitoring the protest.
While Saturday’s protest in Temecula devolved into a tense standoff between deputies and peaceful protesters, Lake Elsinore protester Pato Banton — the reggae singer — began by expressing gratitude to sheriff’s deputies for watching the demonstration, after the protest group had marched from Lakepoint Park off Lakeshore Drive to the corner of Main Street and Graham Avenue.
“Firstly, I want to say thank you to the police officers for overseeing our peaceful protest today,” Banton said. “We are here in solidarity because of the injustice that is being continually heaped upon people of color across the U.S.A. We have a police force that is supposed to be protecting us and serving us but instead they have been assassinating us, constantly.”
After addressing the crowd of around one hundred demonstrators, Banton turned his attention to business owners who were watching from a distance.
“And for all the property owners across the street, we love you guys, you provide a service to us,” he said. “This is not a matter of us and them, this is all of us together united for a change in the United States of America and around the world wherever there is injustice.”
A little earlier in the protest, another demonstrator, Quinlan Strong, called for more representation of the black community in Lake Elsinore’s local government.
“We need change on our city council,” Strong said. “We need black people representing our community.”
Strong also expressed that the protest should not be interpreted as antagonistic of the nearby sheriff’s deputies.
“I’ve got some good friends over here in the police department,” Strong said. “It is not about them, it is about the character of somebody. And then you put a uniform on them, that character does not change.”
One protester led the group in chanting not just “black lives matter,” but also “all lives matter,” “white lives matter,” and “Latino lives matter.”
Later in the demonstration, protesters made a point to ask for teenagers and young people to make statements.
One, who gave his name as Oscar Sandoval, addressed that earlier chant of “all lives matter.”
“That is not wrong, but we are here to focus today on black lives matter,” Sandoval said. “If there are two houses, and one of them is burning down, you do not water both, you water the burning house. And right now, black lives are the burning house. All lives do not matter until black lives matter.”
As more protesters began to given the opportunity to speak into a megaphone brought by one of the group members, Gregory Asher, who said he was born and raised in Lake Elsinore and served in the U.S. military as a young man, said he was speaking out against the fear of being targeted by law enforcement for being a black man in a country that he had dedicated himself to.
“I served in the United States Army. I gave my life (in service) to this country. And I don’t like the idea that this country would take my life from me. And I protected you, I protected you, I protected them, too,” he said, referring to nearby sheriff’s deputies. “You know, and I don’t want them to take my life. I don’t want to live in fear.”
The demonstration concluded after protesters marched back to Lakepoint Park from downtown and joined each other for a prayer.
Our heavenly creator of this universe, thank you for this opportunity to be here for my family, my local community, my brothers and sisters of all races and all creeds,” Banton said in leading the group in prayer. “Thank you for this moment of unity in Lake Elsinore. This moment of peaceful protest. This moment of allowing our voice to be heard. We are a small group, but we are a mighty group.”
Protesters said Wednesday’s event was largely organized organically and without a central leader.
Antoinette Rootsdawtah, who is married to Banton, said she, her husband and other speakers at the protest had simply been asked by the group to offer their thoughts.
“We came, we didn’t even — nobody, there was no organizer, they just asked the lady and myself to speak,” she said.
The other woman Rootsdawtah was referring to, Strong, said the protest had been set up through Facebook and word of mouth.
“We just started gathering, people started talking,” Strong said. “And then we wanted to make sure that people understood that when you come out, you’re coming out to represent us in a peaceful manner. This is not about being volatile or anything like that.”
Will Fritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.