Anger over the police shooting death of Alfred Olango continued to linger in the speeches, signs and shouts of marchers at a trio of protest rallies Saturday around the county, but the mood seemed to be shifting toward healing the community and ensuring that shootings like this don’t happen here again.
The day of marches began in El Cajon, where Olango, a 38-year-old Ugandan refugee, was killed Tuesday by a city police officer.
A worried family member had called police to say Olango was in mental distress. In the brief confrontation — caught on video released by the District Attorney’s Office Friday — Olango did not immediately comply with officers and pulled what they thought was a gun from his pants, aiming it at Officer Richard Gonsalves, who shot and killed him. The device was a vaping pen with a gunlike barrel. In the days that followed, El Cajon was roiled by nightly protests that occasionally turned violent.
The first rally Saturday, organized by clergy of all faiths, drew about 200 people to Prescott Promenade Park, where a large American flag flew at half-mast. About a dozen speakers led prayers and songs and talked about the need for better police training and an end to systemic racism against black men in America.
The rally continued with a march through the city’s historic downtown that ended with more speeches in an amphitheater next to City Hall. Many in the all-ages, mixed-race crowd carried signs and poster-size pictures of Olango, including a stylized portrait of him in angel wings.
Kevin Malone, executive director of the San Diego Organizing Project, a faith-based community organization, told the circle of speakers before the rally “there is hot anger out there and we’re not here to deny them their anger but to show the world there’s a peaceful way.”
Olango’s father, Richard Olango Abuka, didn’t hold back his anger in a speech where he vowed to fight on for justice for his son. He led the crowd in an African chant: “Uhura arambe, uhura arambe.” The words, he said later, mean “freedom” and “independence.”
“We’re here praying for peace, but we can’t have peace if we don’t have the independence and freedom to pursue our goal of seeking justice for my son,” Olango Abuka said. “Because when that officer pulled the trigger on my son, he declared war on humanity.”
Many speakers questioned why the officer had his gun drawn after responding to a call about a man who appeared unstable. Shane Harris, of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, said that while Saturday’s rally was centered on peace and healing, the Olango family has more to say.
“We have to make it very clear that what we believe happened to Alfred Olango on that day was murder,” Harris said. “The world is watching San Diego County, and you will not get off this time.”
Harris said he will help the family pursue three goals: a U.S. Justice Department investigation of the El Cajon Police Department, the resignation of Officer Gonsalves and a negligence investigation of Police Chief Jeff Davis.
Other speakers on Saturday represented the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian faiths. Many of the speakers were white, a point made humorously by the Rev. Ronald Cochran, the priest at Church of St. Luke in Rancho San Diego.
“The Church of St. Luke is up on the hill,” Cochran said. “We overlook five golf courses. We’re pretty white, and this is a tragedy for us, too.”
North County resident Michael Mufson was one of more than 100 white attendees in the audience. Hanging from his neck was a large poster detailing the history of blacks in America, beginning with their arrival as slaves, their perceived loss of value to white society after the Civil War, and the 150 years of struggle they’ve endured ever since with racism, poverty, lack of opportunity, inner-city violence and more.
“There’s a vacuum there that needs to be addressed,” said Mufson, a Palomar College theater professor who in November will produce six 10-minute plays on the dangers faced by young black men in America, called “Facing Our Truth: Trayvon, Race & Privilege.”
Holding her 7-month-old son, Jabari, Sarah Coleman, 40, teared up when talking about what it’s like to be a mother raising an African-American male today.
“Fear is not the word. It’s more outrage. It’s more concern for him. I hope he can be in a country where he can walk around and not be afraid. I have brothers who are afraid. They’re afraid of the police. I’m afraid of the police. I don’t want to call the police. We are a threat just walking down the street, and we are not a threat,” Coleman said.
Among those in the crowd was 28-year-old Rodney Stowers, who is black and a former Army tank crewman. Stowers said he was arrested for disobeying a lawful order at a protest in El Cajon on Thursday night. That evening, police made several arrests after protesters threw objects and blocked traffic.
“Sometimes you have to understand how people feel when they feel powerless,” Stowers said, adding that he can see both sides of the Olango shooting.
“I believe the officer was scared. But I don’t think that justifies unprofessional behavior. He was scared, but we’re scared too,” he said, adding that he came Saturday to show “strength in numbers. To let the police know we’re not scared. We’ve already been beat down, shot, killed. … I’m just here for my people.”
El Cajon police kept a low profile on Saturday. There were no visible officers at the opening or closing rallies, but motorcycle officers lined up to control traffic on Main Street and Magnolia Avenue to allow marchers through major intersections. While a few marchers shouted at the police as they passed, organizers quickly discouraged them, to keep the day’s events positive and focused.
The scene was almost universally peaceful, save for several skirmishes that broke out between a white woman and several rally attendees. The woman, who was unidentified, made crude racial slurs at those holding signs and shouted, “Send Obama back to Uganda.” She admitted that she came to the rally to incite anger. Activist Mitchell Sterling, 56, holding a photo of Olango, peacefully guided the woman down Main Street, even as she continued hurling obscenities at him
The Olango family arrived more than 20 years ago in San Diego, which is a haven for refugees. Among those gathered at the park Saturday were newcomers from the war-torn city of Paktika, Afghanistan. Eight members of the Hamdard family arrived in El Cajon on September 15 and they are living in a hotel until they can find an apartment. They were brought to the U.S. by the United Nations. Speaking through his 16-year-old daughter Saadia, Lalmir Hamdard said he had heard about the Olango shooting and other unarmed black men killed by police in recent months.
“This doesn’t change our minds about the United States,” said Hamdard, 38. “It can happen with anyone. It doesn’t mean white people hate black people. America is the best country, this is a great country and we’re happy we came to the United States, even with its problems.”
Later in the afternoon, fewer than 20 protesters marched from San Diego police’s central division in Logan Heights to the downtown police headquarters. Once there, they held a public discussion on race and policing.
“If we aren’t vocal about what we want, nothing changes,” said Chanel Turner, a march organizer with the nonprofit Black and Blue United.
At 5 p.m., a crowd of about 300 or more gathered on the grass outside the WorldBeat Center in Balboa Park for a rally before marching to the Hall of Justice. They chanted “black lives matter” in an orderly fashion as law enforcement blocked off entrance ramps to Interstate 5.
“We are marching to the Hall of Justice because we want to see charges pressed,” said Tau Baraka with Stop the Genocide, adding that he believes the video of the shooting shows Olango being murdered.
Speaker Ahmad Muhammad of the Nation of Islam urged peace within his own community, telling black Americans not to kill each other. He pointed to the Friday night protest in El Cajon where people from many walks of life showed unity – Bloods, Crips, Hebrews, Muslims and Christians.
A ghost town
The area around the El Cajon rally and march sites was mostly abandoned Saturday morning. After several nights of unrest, El Cajon police asked business owners to close for the weekend for safety reasons. Only about a third of the businesses along Main Street were open, with the others posting signs explaining that they’d be shuttered until Monday.
At New York Bakery, owner Santino Digrigoli said business hadn’t really been affected by the protests.
“I don’t have a problem with them, I have a problem with the city. They sent everybody an email telling us to close by 2 p.m. yesterday. And people closed. Now nobody’s really coming around, people don’t want to go out,” said the native of Sicily. “I can’t close, I’ve got to take care of my bills. Nobody’s going to pay my rent, my electric bill.”
Down the street, at Main and Magnolia, URBN Coal Fired Pizza was open for business after shutting down Friday.
“We had to cancel a party of 30, a retirement party, that had been planned for a long time,” said manager John Younger.
He said the restaurant stands to lose a significant amount of money because several large events, including the Cajon Classic Cruise car show on Wednesday and Oktoberfest, scheduled for Friday through Sunday – were cancelled.
“Somebody lost their life – that’s pretty serious,” Younger said. “But this is our livelihood, it’s a mom-and-pop shop.”
Also closed for the weekend is Pancho’s Taco Shop, where Olango died. But the shuttered restaurant still bustled with activity on Saturday.
El Cajon barber Anthony “A.J.” Jiminez, 26, had organized a vigil by the tree in the parking lot where Olango fell. Dozens of votive candles, bouquets of flowers, photographs and cards were displayed under a pop-up tent. Jiminez, who was giving away soft drinks and food to all comers, invited out friends, family and neighbors on behalf of his new community group Police Our Police.
He said he was inspired to start the group after learning that police officers spend fewer hours in training than he did as a barber. He believes there would be fewer police-related shootings if they officers better trained to handle situations with people who are mentally troubled.