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In Leimert Park, celebrating Juneteenth is more important than ever, pandemic or not

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Leimert Park residents have been observing Juneteenth — the day in 1865 when Texas slaves belatedly learned they were free — since June 19, 1949, when local businessman Jonathan Leonard began hosting traditional barbeques in his backyard.

This year, the celebration would be complicated by an invisible visitor: the dreaded coronavirus. But it didn’t stop thousands of people from gathering Friday in Leimert Park, even if most of them wore the telltale masks of the COVID-19 era.

A woman dances  during a Juneteenth celebration in Leimert Park.
Dancing at the Juneteenth celebration in Leimert Park.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

An unofficial American holiday, Juneteenth has been declared an official one in some U.S. states in response to the nationwide outrage following the death of George Floyd, who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer.

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Moza Mjasiri Cooper, founder of the Black Arts Los Angeles, has been holding the Juneteenth Heritage Festival in the South Los Angeles community for more than 10 years, but had decided to cancel this year’s two-day festival due to the coronavirus. But when the killing of Floyd reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, Tony Jolly, who works with Cooper’s nonprofit, declared that Black people needed the Juneteenth event this year more than ever.

Tony Jolly, owner of Hot and Cool Cafe during Juneteenth celebration
Tony Jolly, owner of Hot and Cool Cafe, during the Juneteenth bash in Leimert Park.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“I decided because of the current climate that we needed to hold the event,” said Jolly, owner of Hot and Cool Cafe, which was the epicenter of Friday’s events. “People are thirsty for community now.”

This year’s event was called Leimert Park Rising x Pray for the Hood, the merging of two initiatives led respectively by Jolly, 45, and Elijah Simmons, 23, who is a local rap artist, clothing designer and community organizer. The two entrepreneurs said they wanted to bring all generations to the festival to celebrate Black history and culture.

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“I wanted to create a day that older generations could come and kids like 12 years old and under could celebrate their culture, and then leave inspired to strive for independence,” he said.

Kirikou Muldrow, 8, left, walks with Nia Amir-Jolly, 4, at Juneteenth event
Kirikou Muldrow, 8, walks with Nia Amir-Jolly, 4, at the Juneteenth event in Leimert Park.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The festival, which took place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., featured live acts by local musicians and DJs such as singer Mereba, DJ Battlecat and more. One performer danced and sang atop a parked school bus. Stenciled into the bus were the words Rims of the World Unified Hoop District. The windows of the bus were covered with signs listing the names of Black people, such as Tamir Rice and Alton Sterling, who have died in encounters with police officers. Children heaved basketballs at a hoop attached to the back of the school bus.

Several business owners opened their doors for attendees to shop and food trucks parked along Leimert Plaza Park.

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A basketball game during the Juneteenth celebration.
A basketball game during the Juneteenth celebration.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Warren Todd, 29, of View Park attended the festival with his mother and younger brother as a way to support the neighborhood.

“All of these food trucks, all the vendors in the middle [and] even the stores on the outside are all Black-owned,” he said. “I just wanted to come and support the Black businesses and to keep our dollar in the Black community.”

Gerald Hunter sings along with entertainer Rickie Byars  in Leimert Park
Gerald Hunter sings along with entertainer Rickie Byars.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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Martin Thomas, 79, has been celebrating Juneteenth in Leimert Park for more than 40 years, but said this year’s festival carried a different energy.

“This is different because of all the protests they’ve been doing,” the Leimert Park resident said. He added that these celebrations open people’s eyes more to understand the meaning of Juneteenth.

Natalie Kline, 26, said she learned about Juneteenth as an adult during a summer trip to Texas, where she worked as a lifeguard. Kline, who is white, attended the Leimert Park festival for the first time with two friends, one white and the other Latina.

“Today specifically, I think we wanted to be cautious because as a white person, we didn’t want to seem like we were co-opting this moment,” she said. “This event was created for Black people by Black people. We just want to be respectful because it’s not about us, but I think it’s really powerful to be here.”

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Rickie Byars performs at the  Juneteenth celebration.
Rickie Byars performs at the Juneteenth celebration.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Despite the racial tension that has ignited protests around the world, many people at the festival said they felt empowered and uplifted.

“There’s a huge awakening,” said Yannick “Thurz” Koffi, who performed music that reflected current times."I never knew when I’d see people across the globe rise against racism and systemic oppression during my lifetime. The energy is very different. ... So to be in Leimert on Juneteenth is a blessing and a showing of the ever-growing movement for equity in this world.”

Sierra Hood is reflected in a mirror on her "Pray for the Hood" in Leimert Park.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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Attendees lined up to take photos and light candles at an art installation by Inglewood-based Sierra Hood, which featured an array of protest signs, photos of people killed by police officers and other prominent figures such as Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle.

“I wanted to share how I’ve been feeling,” she said. “It means a lot because all of my friends are affected. My sister is affected and I just can’t imagine losing one of them, so I really feel the need to cleanse and heal and pray, and I feel art and events like this really brings people together.”


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