Demonstrators hold candles outside City Hall during an interfaith candlelight vigil. Photos and video by Jason Ruiz.
Over a hundred demonstrators holding hand-made signs, singing songs and holding burning candles joined religious leaders from throughout the Long Beach community for an interfaith vigil outside City Hall Tuesday, demanding a reexamination of how law enforcement interacts with minorities.
The event was organized in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement, and the subsequent decisions by two separate grand juries in Missouri and New York not to indict the officers involved in the deaths of the unarmed black men. Pat Kennedy, Director at the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization (ICO) and member of the planning team that organized the vigil said that what is needed most is an open dialogue, especially on how to remedy what he described as a troubling connection between local police departments and city prosecutors.
“There’s a problem with the close relationship between prosecutors and police and we really need to think that through in terms of how do we hold police accountable?” Kennedy said. “How do we hold prosecutors accountable? Those are starting points in this discussion.”
The ICO was founded in 1998 and consists of nine congregational members who represent varying faiths and in the past have worked in unison to address shared concerns on air quality, homelessness and access to health care. Rev. Leon Wood, Executive Pastor at Church One in North Long Beach said regardless of faith, safety for your children and how to start a dialogue on how to ensure local law enforcement is on board with providing that safety is something that should bring everyone together. It's not just that black lives matter, or just that brown lives matter; all lives matter, Wood said.
“We’re all in Long Beach together,” Wood said. “We all must live together. We all must work together. And all of our faiths believe in love, and so if we believe in love then we should love each other.”
Men, women and children of all ages and ethnicities held signs reading “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe.” At 4:30PM the peaceful protest took a break from the chanting and singing that reverberated off the Civic Center corridors to honor the 4 1/2 hours Michael Brown’s body was left lying in the street after he was gunned down by Ferguson Police Department Officer Darren Wilson earlier this year. With the candle flames lighting up the faces in the crowd, one of the event organizers broke the silence with a call and response chant.
“I cannot breathe,” she said.
“We breathe together,” they responded.
The notion of working together was a main tenet of the vigil. Rev. Wood said that a multi-ethnic city like Long Beach needs to come together to make sure that the events that happened in Ferguson and Staten Island aren’t repeated here in this city. He expressed that mothers in his congregation, and mothers of color in general, are fearful for their children’s safety. He admitted that youth do go off track at times, but those shortcomings shouldn’t be considered just cause to cut their lives short. Staring out into the crowd as he spoke into a portable public address system, Wood addressed one attendee’s homemade sign.
“I saw a person’s sign that says ‘I can’t breathe’ and I got to see that man on television being choked to death and he said ‘I can’t breathe’ and I’m saying today that what we want to do as a group of Long Beach people, I want us all to learn to breathe together,” Wood said. “To breathe the air of freedom. To breathe the air of justice.”
Two members of City Council joined the crowd outside after a scheduled closed session meeting at the Civic Center. Councilman Al Austin took to the makeshift stage and spoke about his two sons, stating that he wanted them and every other child to be able to grow up and experience life. With Councilman Roberto Uranga off to the side, Austin spoke of the progress that the city has made in the past concerning civilian oversight committees, and of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' approval of an oversight committee for the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department.
“We have processes here in place, here in the city of Long Beach that give our city a voice,” Austin said. “That’s progress.”
The crowd slowly marched toward police headquarters and to the Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse, where representatives from different congregations took turns leading the group in prayer and song, taking breaks to preach about police accountability and the need for transparency. Although the demonstrators remained peaceful throughout the evening, not all passersby were respectful of the gathering. One man repeatedly circled the block while continuously honking his horn in an attempt to drown out the sermon being preached from the top of the police headquarter’s entryway steps.
“Here in America we have the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech,” said 26-year-old Wynton Johnson. “To be gathering in prayer and to have someone honk to drown that out, it’s a little disappointing, but you know, I’m really glad the way the people participating in the vigil reacted by not reacting.”
The Long Beach native said that despite the fact that the response in Long Beach as a whole has been muted in comparison to those in Oakland and other cities across the country, the discussion hasn’t died out. He said that attendance at these types of events, especially for the youth is a good starting point because it serves as a galvanizing agent. Tonight didn’t serve as an end to Johnson, it’s only the beginning, and it’s what happens going forward that is the most important thing.
“Until we have true civilian oversight and some real consequences for police officers taking the lives of unarmed civilians, then these will continue to happen,” Johnson said. “It’s almost like the police are incentivized to kill. You kill somebody, you get a two week paid suspension. I mean, that’s a vacation.”
As the vigil made its last stop outside the courthouse, the dialogue switched entirely to the relationship between law enforcement and the people that preside over trials inside the recently-erected building. Rebekah Calloway, who works for the public defender’s office, was on her way home from work when she saw the crowd and had to stop because it was “so moving.” Calloway's line of work has provided her with an intimate view of the topics that were being belted out of the speaker behind her, but she said that while they are part of the problem, there are larger issues at play.
“I think that’s the last part of the problem,” Calloway said of the crowd’s demands for a re-examination of the relationship between prosecutors and police. “That’s the bandaid. I think the issue starts at the very beginning with inherent racism, when people don’t recognize that they’re racist. It’s so much more deep-seeded. I mean, certainly that’s an issue but it’s the last part of something that begins so much further back in beliefs that people grow up with. It’s an incredibly racist, segregated society. There’s no two ways about it.”