Hundreds gather in vigil for George Floyd in Twin Falls City Park
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Hundreds gather in vigil for George Floyd in Twin Falls City Park

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TWIN FALLS — For eight minutes and 46 seconds Tuesday night, close to 300 Twin Falls residents kneeled in silence against the concrete surrounding of the band shell at Twin Falls City Park, some with fists raised, shedding tears or with their arms around their children.

It is the same length of time Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, who died in police custody, as seen in a viral video that also shows him telling Chauvin he could not breathe.

Community organizers of color, religious leaders, city officials and the Twin Falls Police Department gathered with residents in a vigil to mourn the lives of black Americans who died in police custody.

“We are here to back away from sensationalism,” Savina Barini, one of the event’s organizers and Howard University graduate, said. “We are mourning a mass loss of human life.”

Protests nationwide have erupted in violence as police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds and some demonstrators looted and burned buildings and cars. Organizers of the Twin Falls vigil wanted to create an event that respected those who have died.

Law enforcement officers and city officials stood in solidarity with participants.

“As your police chief, to you I say I’m sorry. I will do better. I will work harder,” Twin Falls Police Chief Craig Kingsbury told the crowd. “... I’m not going to stand here and make excuses for what happened in Minneapolis. Those four officers were not acting as police officers. Not the police officers I know and love.”

A vigil for George Floyd and others

Hundreds gathered and many held signs up during a vigil organized by the Culture For Change Foundation on Tuesday evening at Twin Falls City Park.

Kingsbury said he welcomed discussion with the community and said his phone line was always open for residents to talk and express concerns as well as anger.

Speakers said that the vigil was intended to create a dialogue with the hope that residents who may be on the fence about the issue would be willing to listen.

“We’re not here to divide,” Sergio Larios, a Twin Falls business owner and member of the Twin Falls Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said. “We’re here to create unity and listen to each other.”

A vigil for George Floyd and others

Refugee and US citizen Chandra Upreti listens to speakers during a vigil organized by the Culture For Change Foundation on Tuesday evening at Twin Falls City Park.

Many gave impassioned speeches through tears calling for the end of racism and violence against black people. Organizers ceremonially poured water for each person as they read 103 names of black men, women and children who were killed by police and people in their communities. Speakers called for introspection and a willingness to stand up for those who have died.

“The numbers for me always felt like genocide,” Liyah Babayan, an author and Armenian refugee who escaped ethnic cleansing in Azerbaijan, said. “When we think of genocide we think it’s far away in a third world country ... We don’t stop and check the systems that create systemic racism.”

Babayan advocated for phoning representatives, registering to vote and civic engagement as ways to stand up for black lives.

A vigil for George Floyd and others

Winnie Mwende Christensen speaks during a vigil she helped organize on behalf of the Culture For Change Foundation on Tuesday evening at Twin Falls City Park.

While the vigil remained peaceful, some expressed fear for attending as an example of racism still prevalent in Twin Falls and across Idaho. Sheree Haggan, who grew up in Twin Falls and now works as a diversity specialist at Google, shared memories of her experience in Twin Falls. She recalled her father leaving because of experiences with racism and her school election campaign poster being defaced with the n-word at Twin Falls High School as a teenager.

“I’m terrified to be here because I have seen on social media that ‘y’all better not protest in Twin Falls because we are locked and loaded,’” Haggan said. “... Racism is alive and well in the Magic Valley. But what I know about Twin Falls is that it is kind ... but being kind does not mean you’re not racist.”

A vigil for George Floyd and others

Sheree Haggan, a diversity specialist for Google, speaks to the crowd about the racism she faced growing up in Twin Falls. Hundreds gathered to listen and honor the fallen during a vigil organized by the Culture For Change Foundation on Tuesday evening at Twin Falls City Park.

Attendees and speakers were emotional about the turnout and outpouring of support. Dozens carried signs that condemned racism and supported the Black Lives Matter movement while many more wore black in mourning. Barini hoped that the solidarity showed that participants took the movement to end racism and police brutality seriously.

“I’m hoping if you’re here you’re willing to focus on the phrase ‘lives taken,” Barini said. “And you won’t let ‘black’ distract you.”

Megan Taros is a Times-News reporter and Report for America corps member covering the Magic Valley's Hispanic community and Jerome County. You can support her work by donating to Report for America at http://bit.ly/supportRFA.

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