As night fell Monday in downtown Sonora, candles illuminated the names of more than 90 black Americans who have lost their lives in the past eight years at the hands of police.

Each name was written on a separate piece of posterboard that lined Courthouse Square's historic marble walkways, with information about each person written on the back.

"So many names, so many people, so many lives," said Eleanor Garcia, of Sonora. "It's too much. It's got to stop."

The candlelight vigil was organized by members of Tuolumne County Indivisible, a political activism group that formed in 2016.

Garcia went to the vigil with her 12-year-old son, Tavaris, whose father is black. She said she worries about how her son will be treated by law enforcement.

"If I get pulled over, I need my kids to know how to act for a simple traffic violation because that's the world we live in," she said. "I've seen it firsthand."

A couple dozen or so people walked through the park from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. 

Some walked quietly along the rows of names and read their stories, some sat in the grass with their legs crossed and meditated or talked to each other about how it made them feel.

"I just hope black people in our community feel supported and know there are people who will stand with them," Kristina Flavin, of Sonora, said as she wiped away tears.

The names included that of George Floyd, the latest unarmed black man to be killed while in police custody.

Floyd's death in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked a national uproar that led to widespread protests in cities across the United States over the weekend, some of which turned violent and destructive.

Sheriffs and police chiefs in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have condemned the actions of Minneapolis police officers that led to Floyd's death, which was captured on video.

Jessica Williams, one of the vigil's organizers, said they didn't publicize it at first because of social distancing due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, though disruption of peaceful protests over the weekend added another reason.

"After the events of the past week, I really didn't want to instigate or attract outside agitators from either side of the political spectrum," she said. "I wanted it to be visual and peaceful."

Julie Gorgas, another one of the vigil's organizers, said the names were culled mostly from an article listing high-profile cases of police-caused deaths since Trayvon Martin in 2012. 

Martin was 17 and unarmed when he was fatally shot in Florida by former neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who was later acquitted of murder at trial.

"Black lives matter, and we have black people in our community who are afraid to get politically active, so we are here for them, too," Gorgas said. 

Salena Klaut, 18, of Sonora, said she wanted to attend the vigil because she's been filled with a mixture of anger and sadness since Floyd's death.

Klaut, who said she's experienced racism while growing up in the community, said she hopes events like the one on Monday will help expose the community to the experiences of people of color.

"It can help change the racism in our community," she said. "The more we do this, the more people will change."

Niana Nivens, 24, of Murphys, said she didn't know about the vigil until she saw it while driving through town on the way to the store.

Nivens said she stopped and took a moment to take it in because her father is black and she wanted to pay her respects.

"It's good for people to see this and what's happening," she said. "It should make people uncomfortable. That's what causes change."

The vigil remained peaceful and somber until the end when the organizers blew out the candles and collected the posters, which they planned to donate for a peaceful protest planned at the park at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

A Sonora police patrol car cruised by regularly to ensure no one harassed the participants.

Justus Cotrone, 20, who's lived in Sonora his whole life, stopped to check out the event because he's sympathetic to the cause and thanked the organizers for putting it on.

Cotrone said he was amazed at the amount of names that were represented in the park, 98 percent of whom he said he hadn't heard about before seeing them at the vigil.

"I love to see people doing this, because it means I'm not not alone," he said. "In this world, people often don't express their opinions on issues like this because it's hard. But when they do, it's really powerful."

 

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 768-5175.

 

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