Locals reflect on decades of violence during evening vigil in the Castro
For the first time in a decade, San Francisco’s Pride flag waved gently at half mast.
There are many Pride flags on Market Street, but this 30-foot billowing rainbow at the top of Castro street is the stalwart of the neighborhood.
Though others in the LGBT community have died before their time, said Daniel Bergerac, president of Castro Merchants, this “just feels mind numbing, doesn’t it?”
Fifty people were shot and killed more than 2,800 miles away in Orlando, Fla., but the attack in a gay nightclub called Pulse shook many in the Castro community, San Francisco’s historic hotbed of gay rights.
Just down the hill, at Castro and 18th streets, stands a memorial long used for those who died as a result of AIDS along the local Bank of America. Flowers and signs often dot the corner, but since Sunday morning, hundreds of flowers piled on the concrete.
Daisies, sunflowers, orchids and even rainbow-dyed roses. Sunday afternoon, a thin man and two young girls placed pale flowers on the ground. As soon as he stood, he silently sobbed.
Another man, older and heavyset, dropped to his knees at the makeshift memorial, pressing his hands together in prayer. His small chihuahua stared up at him as his body heaved with sobs. A passerby in sunglasses tapped him on the shoulder and offered a hug. The strangers embraced.
Amidst the petals was a photograph of two of the slain men: Drew and Juan. Orlando Zablan, 26, placed the photo there to remember his fallen friends.
Zablan has only been in San Francisco six months. Seven months ago, he was dancing at Pulse with the smiling men in the photo.
“Drew and Juan, they always made each other smile,” Zablan said. The three of them would play arcade games at nearby bars and watch anime together.
Zablan crossed his arms, smiling briefly, and said he remembered “drunken conversations, stupid jokes” and fun times.
When asked if he felt safe in the Castro after the shooting, he said he had no easy answers, but “sometimes, as a community, we need to stand together.”
By dusk, the Castro community stood with Zablan — and with all of Orlando.
It was on this same street that nearly four decades ago, in 1978, thousands of candles floated in the dark to honor The City’s slain supervisor, Harvey Milk.
It was on the same street more than two decades ago, in the 1990s, ACT UP protesters clashed with police to garner medical treatment for those dying of AIDS.
Now, the street saw mourners again. Thousands packed the corridor in the dusk. The wind was strong, but the bodies provided heat.
Speaking to the crowd from atop a truck, Supervisor Scott Wiener, an openly gay man, called for gun control. Supervisor David Campos, also openly gay, called for the Latino community to be remembered.
The crowd booed as Mayor Ed Lee took the stage and called for “unity.” Many cried out about San Francisco’s own brushes with violence.
The crowd laughed in moments, too, especially as former Assemblymember Tom Ammiano kissed Mayor Lee and hugged Police Chief Toney Chaplin on stage.
The night was mostly silent, however, as candles danced in the wind.
Lito Sandoval, who fought with ACT UP for those dying of AIDS in the ’90s, told the crowd of mourners to live for the future. “Love freely. Live freely. Be free,” Sandoval said.
Though there were many triumphant cheers and many embraces, the crowd cried together when Dr. Suzanne Barakat, of San Francisco General Hospital, took the stage.
Clad in her hijab, Barakat told the crowd she is a Syrian woman and a Muslim. The Orlando shooting brought back memories that shook her “to my core.”
Last year, Barakat’s brother, his new wife and his wife’s sister were gunned down “execution style,” for their Muslim faith in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The crowd was silent as she spoke.
As a physician, she said, she sees shootings as a symptom of “hatred, cruelty and intolerance.”
The cure, she said, “is the medicine of love, kindness and compassion.”
Standing where Harvey Milk stood long ago, she delivered a message echoing words he told his mourners from the grave, in a recording: “You’ve got to give them hope.”
Many people on Sunday night spoke to that very idea.
The shooter’s true ammo was hatred.
To love, then, is to win.
People gather around a memorial near Castro and 18th streets in the Castro District of San Francisco, Calif. to remember the victims of the Orlando, Fl. shooting Sunday, June 12, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)