A multicultured parade gathered at 16th and Mission Wednesday afternoon to unite the neighborhood and rally against the gang violence that ripped through the community last month.
“We’re trying to bring unity,” said organizer Alfredo Najera III before the procession began. “That includes punksters, hipsters, Latinos, cholos, everybody. We don’t care if you’re rich or poor. If you live here, you’re part of the Mission community.”
It began with a prayer. Aztec dancers in full-feathered regalia blessed the paved ground and honored the four directions as copal incense swirled. A creeping wind kept the palm trees swaying high above the lower Mission zócalo.
A few introductory remarks from Najera, then District 9 Supervisor David Campos (“We have such a strong community, demonstrated by the rainbow you can see here… ”) kept the scene in motion, and then the gathered were off, marching narrowly up the sidewalk. The dancers twirled at the lead, ankles rattling in unison to a strong drum beat.
Passing cars honked in solidarity. Neighbors leaned from second-story windows.
Men with shopping carts hollered and clapped, or briefly abandoned their loads to weave through the marching crowd. Hipsters scurried into coffeeshops.
Befuddlement turned to smiles as Najera and a 12-year-old boy enthusiastically manning a bullhorn called onlookers to join.
The Mission District Peace Procession was on its way to meet with a parade of neighborhood residents coming from the other direction, each 100 strong.
A group of middle schoolers from the Mission Beacon after-school program had painted colorful signs and a wide green banner with the words “One Mission.”
“We proclaim the Mission District streets of peace. We say no to the killings, the robbings, the beatings,” Najera declared in a running commentary that also directed the massed group across streets and kept them on the sidewalk.
At 19th Street, another blessing: “To all the young people we’ve lost on this corner. We have to take responsibility for everyone we’ve lost, because maybe we weren’t there for them. But now we are. Él es Dios.”
“God bless you,” from a bodega storekeeper as the cacophony shuffled past, then onwards.
At the corner of 20th and Mission, conch shell horns from the dancers rang out deep and hollow, an earthly sound echoing off the windowed facade of the new T-mobile superstore.
At 24th and Harrison streets, the processions converged outside the Head Start and Mission Girls centers. Día de los Muertos altars lingered around the periphery still flitting with candles.
As the crowd pressed close, nearly 300 by now, more than a dozen speakers from an array of community organizations in turn stood atop a short concrete bench, passionately inciting the crowd with messages of peace and solidarity.
“Sometimes we have to learn from the dead,” spoke Rudy Corpuz, founder of the United Playaz, a local violence prevention and youth leadership organization, and MC for the night. He was referring to the three men shot and killed last month within blocks of the gathering.
“You may be in a gang, but you’re part of us,” Balberon said from the platform. “We love you. You’re part of a beautiful family. We’re not going to let you go. We want you here in the community fighting with us.”
A visibly moved crowd cheered loudly.
“Go to their house and bring them some food and tell them, ‘We love you but the violence must stop,’” Balberon continued.
Campos spoke now to the larger crowd. “We are fighting for you at City Hall,” he said, “but we can’t do it alone.”
“The hardest thing I’ve had to do as a supervisor was going to two funerals.”
A brief chant arose: “No more killings! No more killings!”
A few teens and ex-bangers also spoke briefly of their experiences and pleaded with youth to focus on school.
“You’re mind is your nine,” said Carla Vasquez, a neighborhood teenager who said she was caught up in gangs when she was younger.
Minister Christopher Muhammad, local leader of the Nation of Islam, struck a more divisive tone, railing against the new enemy of redevelopment and calling on the Black and brown communities to join together against “the conqueror.”
“I don’t like the term gang,” Muhammad said. “I like the term street organizer. They just haven’t learned what to fight for.”
Najera returned to the mic to reemphasize inclusiveness as candles were passed around the darkening corner, again citing hipsters, scenesters, Latinos, African Americans and everyone else as part of the community and part of the solution to the violence.
The drumming troupe Loco Bloco pounded heavily into the night while pieces of the crowd lingered and drifted. Candles were placed at the altars in remembrance of victims of violence and hands dipped into a big bag of trail mix brought to share.