Thursday’s vigil at Crockett Park demonstrated communal grief for the Orlando massacre victims and their families as well as a growing fear of the dangers faced by marginalized groups, particularly LGBTQIA communities, communities of color, and Muslim communities.
Grief counselors were on hand during the vigil, organized by Pride Center San Antonio and other groups, to conduct free private counseling sessions, and a number of speakers brought the crowd to tears. In moments between emotional remarks from more than a dozen secular and interfaith speakers, people read aloud the names of the dead.
In voices that broke and shook from choked-back tears, they yelled out the names of the 49 murder victims.
“Eddie Justice,” yelled one reader.
“Presente,” shouted another.
“Presente,” echoed the crowd.
Justice, who was hiding in a bathroom at the club, texted his mother shortly after the shooting began. Along with a short biography of the 30-year-old man, one of the readers yelled out the message Justice had sent to his mother: “Mommy, I love you.”
“Presente,” shouted the crowd again.
And on it went, the pain of each name, each story, compounding the pain of the one before it, until each name had been spoken and released into the humid, summer air.
The reading of those names, which were almost entirely Latino, spoke to the particular pain felt by San Antonio’s LGBTQIA community. The names of the victims in Orlando sounded like home — a reminder that the deep hatred demonstrated during Sunday morning’s shooting is not limited to Orlando.
While mourning families and friends in Florida brace themselves for the traumatizing protests from Westboro Baptist Church, the vigil in San Antonio had its own disruptions.
A masked man carrying a sign that read “God Hates Fags” was assaulted by someone attending the vigil, according to media reports. The man who punched the protestor was arrested for unrelated, outstanding warrants and the man in the mask was briefly detained by San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) after the altercation.
This was the second vigil at Crockett Park since the shooting, which took place in the early hours of Sunday, June 12, and left 49 dead and 53 injured: The deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The park is adjacent to a section of North Main Street, generally referred to as the “Gay Strip,” that includes several blocks of bars, clubs, and restaurants that cater to San Antonio’s LGBTQIA community.
The vigil was complicated by the attendance of San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor. As the District 2 City Councilwoman in 2013, she voted against extending San Antonio’s non-discrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Taylor did not read a prepared set of remarks as other speakers did. Instead she recited a prayer, the first of several that evening, from the steps of the central gazebo to the more than 800 people that attended the vigil.
The verses of her prayer were punctuated with several shouts from the crowd of “shame on you,” as well as other supportive shouts of “yes” and “let her finish.” Some audience members turned their backs on Taylor as she spoke while others gave her a loud round of applause as she stepped down from the platform.
Robert Salcido Jr., Pride Center’s Board of Directors chair, said that it was never the Center’s nor the Mayor’s intention for her to make any personal remarks at the event. Her decision to attend came about during a regularly scheduled meeting this week between Taylor and LGBTQIA liaisons during which, according to Salcido, the Mayor herself offered to attend the vigil but acknowledged that personal remarks or a speech from her would not be appropriate.
“The mayor and I had a conversation about that and in fact she was the one who said that it was definitely not a good choice for her to speak,” Salcido said Thursday afternoon. “She very much knows that she’s a guest in our community, that she’s coming to our event, and honestly she’s making an attempt.”
That choice was intended as a way for her to show her respect and solidarity with the LGBTQIA community without invading their space.
Before the vigil, Taylor told reporters she simply wanted to connect with San Antonians in the wake of tragedy, no matter their differences.
“I believe that people are entitled to their opinions or concerns,” she remarked, “but I certainly feel a responsibility as a person of faith and as a leader of this community to be here in unity and say that what happened was wrong.”
When casting her vote in 2013 against the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity, Taylor distanced herself from religious and political extremists who made baseless claims about the dangers of the LGBTQIA community, but she said she worried that the ordinance would force individuals and business owners to choose between the law and their faith.
Some attendees were disappointed by the Pride Center’s decision to invite her to the vigil and give her a prominent place in the proceedings. Polly Anna Rocha, a local poet, musician, and transgender woman who read a poem at the vigil, is one of those people. She expressed her discomfort with the Mayor’s presence in a preamble to her poem.
“I would like to address those who are spectators of our pain,” she said to the crowd. “Specifically to the politicians and police who do nothing to protect us any other day. I would like to say that you have contributed to the culture of violence that allows events like Orlando to occur. You have contributed to the loss of life in our community through your inaction, silence, and abuse of power. This poem is not for you, but since you are here, you may listen to it.”
Rocha’s remarks were greeted by loud claps and snaps from the crowd. Their reaction reflects a sentiment among many LGBTQIA individuals and their allies across the nation, who have rejected entreaties of politicians who they say offer “thoughts and prayers” for the victims of Saturday’s violence, but have not stood with the LGBTQIA community for equal rights at other times.
Salcido said it is important to look at the big picture when it comes to the Mayor’s participation.
“How, as a community, do we move forward past this shooting?” he asked before the vigil. “But also, how do we move forward in ensuring that we as a San Antonio community are able to provide a safe community?
“Whether anyone acknowledges it or likes it, we have to have a relationship with the Mayor who’s running the city in order for us to do that. That’s the only way that we have to educate her, and for her to see who we are as people. If we completely shut her out, I don’t think we’re meeting our obligations as community members to change hearts and minds.”
Rocha said she is skeptical of a platform that puts the onus on marginalized people to educate others on their humanity.
“I think that it shouldn’t take 49 people being murdered to bring someone over to our side and see that we are living human beings,” Rocha said Wednesday before the vigil. “That part about it frustrates me. That it really took such a loss of life and such a tragic situation to have her come down to our level, so to speak, to have her step off the pedestal and address us as human beings and as peers.”
Salcido, who says he understands and feels the pain and anger of those upset over Taylor’s presence, also believes that the community has to meet her and those like her halfway.
“The Ivy Taylor that I knew in 2013 and the Ivy Taylor that I know in 2016 are not (the same) — she’s in a different place,” he said. “Is she fully where we want her to be? No. But change is not an event, change is a process, and that process takes different timeframes for different people.”
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) addressed the City’s commitment to keeping the community safe in his remarks to the crowd.
“There’s a tendency to think that such a monstrous act couldn’t happen in our city, but it could,” he said. “Hatred runs deep.”
Though officials, including San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, have clarified that there are no credible threats in the city that they have discovered, the department is stepping up patrols, particularly on the Gay Strip. Several police officers were assigned to the vigils held on Sunday and Thursday.
“The violence that happened in Orlando was really heavy, but it’s nothing new,” said local organizer Arty Trejo. “I think we see it everyday. We see (transgender) folks being murdered, we see queer folks being antagonized, we see queer individuals being policed and usually it happens to LGBTQIA people of color as well.”
Rocha expressed that sense of perpetual unease, even in “safe spaces” like the bars on the Strip.
“As a queer trans woman of color I am always looking over my shoulder,” she said. “That fear is always there no matter what, even within safe spaces.
“So while we have been, for decades and decades, making safe spaces for ourselves, there has always been that notion that we weren’t safe. There are places where we can be ourselves without worry of judgment, but there are not places where we can go to be ourselves and not worry about someone trying to hurt us. There are no places like that.”
The vigil was largely free of the explicit political discourse that has gripped the nation since Sunday. There were only passing references to gun control legislation from the speakers. A 15-hour filibuster led by U.S. Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Connecticut) made headlines this week and ended just before 2 a.m. Thursday morning with an agreement between Republican and Democratic Senate leaders to hold votes on two gun control amendments.
Top image: From left: Nathaniel Barrera and Joely Mojica light candles in honor of those who passed away in Orlando. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.