Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, parks and streets around the country and world have become staging grounds for massive outpourings of frustration and anger over systemic racism in the United States.
On Monday, June 1, a Black Lives Matter protest took place at Palm Desert’s Civic Center Park, organized by a self-described band of “newbie” community organizers who wanted their voices heard. Their Instagram account is called Coachella Valley Activists.
The group originally called for an evening protest on El Paseo. However, on the day of the gathering, the group moved the event to Palm Desert’s City Hall-adjacent Civic Center Park—and made the start time earlier in response to a countywide curfew.
“For everyone, it was their first time staging a protest rally,” said Angel Moreno, one of the organizers. “Our team is more than 20 people. It’s a big group. But, actually, it started with an idea between my friend and me. All of our friends talked about how there should be a protest on El Paseo in Palm Desert, but nobody ever took the initiative to make one (happen). So, we had the idea of making one, and he made a page (on Instagram). I helped set it up, and I was contacting everyone to spread the news to actually make a protest in Palm Desert. Everyone agreed, and shared and talked to people.”
Moreno said his group wanted to “wake up the people in the valley” about unacceptable things going on in the world.
“A lot of lives are being lost, and a lot of police brutality is happening, and the police are not being held to account for it,” Moreno said. “This group is very diverse. We have white, Mexican, Black, Asian (and) gay (members)—and it hurts our African-American friends more. I’m Latino, and I do feel it, but it hurts to see them hurt. And now, even with everything that’s going on in the world, Latinos are getting abused by police and discriminated against. What’s happening right now is just really unacceptable, and we wanted to do this protest so our words could be heard.”
When the group’s Instagram post announcing the protest started getting attention, various people and media sources—the Independent included—reached out and asked who the Coachella Valley Activists were. There was no response before the protest; we asked Moreno why.
“That’s just because there were a lot of messages going on,” Moreno said. “We didn’t expect our page to blow up, but when it did, there were so many messages and comments, and we were really just overwhelmed. We tried to get to as many as we could, but only my friend and I have the account.”
Moreno said he is happy the group decided to move the protest from El Paseo to Civic Center Park. After rioting and looting took place in cities around the country over the weekend—and after a quickly retracted Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce Facebook post the night before inaccurately claimed “busses are arriving already with people”—concerned El Paseo business owners boarded up windows and braced for the worst.
“It was a great thing that we changed the location, and not just due to the fact that everyone was asking us to please not do it on El Paseo because of all the businesses,” Moreno said. “We weren’t going to do anything, but then we thought, ‘Well, let’s move to another area, because we don’t want to cause any problems.’ Even though we weren’t going to (cause problems), people thought we were. So we wanted them to know that we heard them. That’s why we decided to move it.
“Also, we were getting a lot of followers and people saying that they were going to come, and we knew we’d need a bigger area.”
That surprising level of engagement, coming from an Instagram account just a few days old, continued to grow right up to the start time.
“When my group and I first showed up,” Moreno said, “we saw protesters there already, even before the scheduled start time, which was really surprising. We said, ‘Oh my god, this is a whole lot of people.’ There were at least 150 people already there, and as time went by, it just kept increasing more and more. It was so amazing to see so many people. We didn’t expect it to be this big. Not at all. I mean, we were just amazed.”
The rally itself was, by design, a free-form event.
“Here’s the thing: We didn’t want it to be about ourselves,” Moreno said. “We didn’t want to say, ‘Hey, we’re the protesters, and we made this (demonstration).’ We didn’t want that. We wanted the people to be heard. Everyone could take a turn speaking and talking. It was just amazing how organized it was—for not being organized. It was truly amazing, because it was really peaceful. There was no violence at all. Everyone just took turns talking, chanting and speaking their truth. Eventually, we thanked everyone for attending, and then we started marching down Fred Waring past Monterey towards Highway 111.”
Moreno described what happened as the 6 p.m. countywide curfew approached.
“We turned around and went back to City Hall, because we wanted to keep protesting,” Moreno said. “Then, once it hit 6 p.m., which was the curfew time that came out that day, we told everyone that they should leave for their own safety. But a lot of people wanted to stay. We kept telling people to leave, because we didn’t want anybody to get hurt at all. We didn’t want the police to do anything. But, thankfully, people did stay after 6 p.m. … While I was being interviewed (on TV news) exactly at 6 p.m., the crowd kept going eastward on Fred Waring, and they stopped close to downtown Palm Desert. I was asked then if I thought all the (attendees) were leaving, or if they were going to continue to protest. I told (the news) they didn’t want to leave, because this was very important to them, and they wanted their voices to be heard.
“I got interviewed for just a few minutes, and then we followed the rest of the group. That’s when the police started covering the street (around us), and we told people not to do anything stupid and just keep our distance. We had, like, six car lengths of distance (between the line of police and the group of demonstrators), and we weren’t doing anything. We were kneeling down and chanting when out of nowhere, the police threw a smoke grenade. First one, and then around four more of them started throwing (the smoke grenades). People took it easily, because it was just smoke. They backed up away from the police and tried to get out of the smoke. So, everyone wasn’t running or (being) violent or anything. They were just trying to move out of the way.”
Moreno admitted the COVID-19 pandemic was indeed a concern.
“But it would be hard to tell people to stay six feet away from each other, and also to be in formation (while demonstrating),” he said. “So we were concerned about the coronavirus, but we told people before the protest even happened to not touch each other, and that they should wear masks. We wanted people to be safe, but the protest was happening, and it was more important than the pandemic right now. I don’t think people are even thinking about the pandemic while they’re protesting, because they’re speaking out of anger. They’re speaking from their hearts.”
What’s next for the Coachella Valley Activists?
“Right now, we’re supporting other protests that are happening around the Coachella Valley. Also, we’re (gathering a list and) sharing the names of black-owned businesses. Because our page blew up so big, we now have a lot of followers in the valley, and we just want to share our platform with other groups.
“I do want to say that we did this not for ourselves, but for everyone around the world,” Moreno said. “We want to be part of the change that’s happening right now, and we want the people in our cities to be heard. We don’t want to be silenced, and we just want peace. That’s all we want.”
For more information, visit www.instagram.com/coachellavalleyactivists.