As protests rocked the nation this week in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who perished after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, Pasadena clergy, civil rights and social justice groups joined peacefully to decry police brutality on people of color — nationally and locally — and demanded civilian oversight for the city’s police department.
Despite reports of protests turning violent across Los Angeles County over the weekend, with Gov. Gavin Newsom declaring a state of emergency and county officials issuing local curfews, an estimated 1,500 people convened on the steps of Pasadena’s City Hall on Sunday evening to express outrage and urge justice for Floyd.
More than two dozen churches publicized the evening event, called the Candlelight Vigil & Protest in Memory of George Floyd, and more rallies were being planned later in the week. The NAACP Pasadena branch, the National Association of Day Labors and faith leaders from the Community Clergy Association organized a vehicle caravan through Pasadena on Tuesday, with participants making their way to City Hall to hear from speakers who called for healing and action leading to change.
“The death of George Floyd is a continuation of murders of African-American men. Now is the time to speak up about it,” said NAACP Pasadena branch President Allen Edson. “I see change coming. How or what that looks like going forward, I don’t think anybody knows, but I think we’d all be despicable human beings if we stayed the same [after viewing Floyd’s death].”
With reports of protests across the nation that were marred with looting and violence, at least 40 metropolitan cities imposed curfews and National Guard personnel were deployed in 15 states and Washington, D.C., including nearly 1,000 in the Greater Los Angeles area, CNN reported Tuesday.
In Pasadena, however, civic leaders and city officials were working hard to keep the lines of communication open about wanting to protest and the plans to do so. Though a curfew was in place, officials allowed the peaceful demonstrations at City Hall.
“We’ve been trying to organize accordingly, and our tactics seem to be working. We’ve been very fortunate in having peaceful and cooperative demonstrations among organizations that can bring light to their cause,” said Pasadena police Lt. William Grisafe, noting that officers were at the ready Sunday evening if crowd safety became a concern, but they were asked to remain in the background. “We understand that the visibility of police at the time of these events is going to be a cause of concern for people. … We do have teams ready to go in a moment’s notice, but we’ve stayed under the radar.”
Echoing what police Chief John Cruz has stated publicly, Grisafe said: “What occurred [in Minneapolis] is wrong. It really is tragic. It’s not consistent with the tactics and training that we teach at the Pasadena Police Department. … The video is telling and it’s very difficult to watch.”
Prior to the City Hall vigil and protest, a few smaller demonstrations took place throughout Pasadena, largely without incident, Grisafe added.
On Sunday evening, those converging on City Hall to call for institutional change in the way African-American men and people of color are treated by the police included people of all ethnicities, noted one of the protest’s organizers, Mayra West Nolan, a pastor at Lake Avenue Church and longtime activist with the Clergy Community Coalition.
Initially, Nolan had expected 300-500 people to show up, especially given the confusing curfew (with the county and the city issuing separate curfews) and the social distancing measures in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Nonetheless, the unexpected throngs of people spreading out at City Hall was inspiring and healing, she added.
“Word of it really seemed to spread like wildfire. Every pastor we reached out to was eager to participate right away, as were their congregations,” she said. “I think it’s indicative of something that may be shifting in the faith community, and even among the conservative and white conservative church communities. We’re seeing churches come out of the woodwork that we haven’t ever seen before to support the black community and Black Lives Matter.”
Organizers also recognized Pasadena’s own history of documented police brutality.
“Yes, we have our own list of hashtags: Kendrec McDade, Leroy Barnes, Christopher Ballew,” said Nolan, referencing three black men in Pasadena who were either killed or injured by police.
Many in the crowd on Sunday added the names of the local men to their signs, calling for justice and chanting the names in unison when Black Lives Matter Pasadena founder Jasmine Richards led the crowd to “Say Their Names.”
Richards’ appearance at the vigil and protest was an inspiring moment, Nolan added, saying that the crowd’s joyous reaction when Richards took the microphone made her contemplate something. Several years ago, Richards became a controversial figure in the local fight for social justice when she was sentenced to 90 days in jail for interfering with Pasadena police as they were taking a suspect into custody.
“When Jasmine took the mic, the entire crowd went crazy. That was a moment for the church, because we have to work together and support one another. Jasmine Richards is beloved, in part because she is so close to the pain of the African-American community, and we have to support her,” said Nolan.
During the emotional evening, faith and civic leaders gave inspiring speeches of civil disobedience. The crowd also erupted into eight minutes of sustained noise to represent the eight-plus minutes Floyd lay dying.
While the ability to scream, shout or bang a pot was cathartic in some ways, it was also very emotional, Nolan said: “You realize how long eight minutes really is.”