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Roland

Velasco

Roland Velasco was born and raised in Gilroy. In 1999, he was elected to the Gilroy City Council and served until 2007. He rejoined the Gilroy City Council in 2014 and was elected as Gilroy’s first Mexican-American mayor in 2016, receiving two out of every three votes cast. Just before the shooting occurred, at 5:41 pm on Sunday, July 28, 2019, Mayor Velasco had returned to the festival, after volunteering over the weekend, to help the Chamber of Commerce break down their beer booths. He has some Advanced First Aid training and assisted with victim triage in addition to his work as mayor.

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I normally wasn’t working that Sunday, but I told the Chamber, “Hey, if you need help, call me.” I was on the Christmas Hill side of the park, when all of a sudden we see masses of people just running. My first thought was, “Shit, it’s a fight.” It’s like high school—when there’s a fight, then all of a sudden, ssshhuuup [he moves his hand as if slicing the air], everybody gathers. 

Chamber representatives got a message over the walkie-talkie to shelter-in-place. Everybody piles into this refrigerated trailer, probably fifteen to twenty of us. By this point, I’m hearing there’s a shooting. I try sending out a text message to my city administrator. My message won’t go out.

I’m near the front of the door, and the door opens. So I say, “Okay, let me just open this a little bit more.” I'm standing on the steps that go into the reefer unit, trying to send out my text message. Meanwhile, I get somebody calling me. It’s a good friend of mine, a retired CHP officer. He was telling me, “Hey, Roland, go look for the girls. The twins are supposed to be near the front entrance somewhere.” 

To hear the panic in his voice because his girls were here somewhere really scared me. All I said was, “I’ll go. I’ll go look for them.”

I ended up coming along a tree line. I saw a lot of people who were still running, trying to get out. I saw one vehicle that had a blanket over somebody. I think he was one of the first casualties that they were able to pull over. I saw a couple other people with cuts and bruises. A firetruck had just pulled up. When they got out of the truck, they put their trauma bag down on the ground. They were carrying a bunch of things. As I passed them by, I grabbed the trauma pack, and I followed them inside the PD command center. Meanwhile, I'm looking for the twins.

When I get there, I don’t see the twins, but I see some triage that’s going on. I’m not a paramedic by any means, but I knew enough to put on some gloves and assist where I could. 

[What did you see?

[He takes a long pause.] . . . Lots of blood. I ripped up a piece of a box, got a pen from somebody. I was just writing down “Victim One.” If somebody called out their blood pressure, or their wounds or whatever, I just wrote that stuff down. There was one person in particular who had a really bad shot to the upper leg. A paramedic was there. He turned to me and he said, “Can you set up the IV?” I said, “No, I can’t do that.” He said, “Can you take blood pressure?” I said “Yes, I could do that.” He threw the blood pressure cuff over to me. When I reached up the victim’s arm to put the cuff on, I noticed a large bullet wound where the blood pressure cuff would go. I said, “He’s missing part of his arm.” The paramedic asked me to feel a pulse. At this point, I was just trying to get a good pulse. I could see he was alive. His eyes were partially closed, his breathing was shallow. I was just trying to feel a pulse, but he lost a lot of blood. I said, “It's not very strong.” I think once he got transported to the hospital, this person ended up surviving. But for me, it was always . . . that was pretty scary.

Over in my corner, I saw somebody else. Somebody lying down there. I saw somebody on their knees holding this person’s hand. I was on my knees. I go over and I said, “Has this person been triaged?” He looked up at me and he said, “You're the mayor.” I was just shocked and said, “Yeah.” He said, “She’s passed.” I gathered, along with others. We grabbed hands and formed a circle and said a prayer for her.

While all this is happening, my phone is blowing up. I’m getting calls from national media, from around the world, emails, everything. I just felt them following me. They’re ringing or vibrating, whatever. Text messages, everything is coming in. I couldn’t answer because one, I’m in the middle of all this, and two, I’m wearing bloody gloves. The CHP officer who had called me popped his head in and he saw me down on the ground with one of the victims. I told him the girls weren’t here. He ended up finding them inside one of these trailers. There was a bunch of green pesto sauce that somebody had spilled in the trailer, all on their shoes. He told me recently that he was making some of the sauce at home, and the smell from that sauce took him right back to that day.

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That first press conference at nearby Gavilan College was surreal. You see it in the news and movies, where you have all these cameras and people shouting out questions. When we got there, they were already formed in this half circle. There must’ve been a podium there because there was a bunch of mics. It’s ten or eleven o’clock at night. Keep in mind, I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I was just supposed to go there, help tear down the tent. It was starting to get cold. I was able to get my wife to at least bring me a jacket. 

I go up before the microphone. All the light, they have all these bright lights on you. I could not see the faces out there. I don't even think I introduced myself. I just started talking. I can't tell you to this day what it is that I said. I remember holding onto the podium like this [he grips the table]. My hands were shaking still. Just moments earlier, I was trying to take the blood pressure of somebody who’s got a hole in their arm. That kind of changing gears was just . . . it was difficult for me. That whole scene at Gavilan College is just a blur to me.

That first 48 hours, 72 hours, hell, even longer than that, I felt like my role as mayor should be that of Comforter-in-Chief. My first responsibility was to the community to see what I could do to help heal the community, but most importantly, what I could say that might express the feelings of the community. 

There was a lot of raw emotion. People were hurt. People were just shocked and hurt. I know I was shocked. I knew it happened. I saw some of the results. This has always been a family focused event. People were really hurt that something like this could happen, and that something like this could happen at our event. Then to make matters worse, it wasn’t an outsider, it was a Gilroy person. The older adults, they could tell you where they were for the first man on the moon or the JFK assassination. Well, there's a lot of Gilroyans who can tell you exactly where they were during the Garlic Festival shooting. That is burned in our collective memories. The community, especially a close-knit community at a family event, there is a tremendous psychological trauma. I don’t think that ever really gets recognized.

When people do talk to me about it, it’s really just listening. I can’t say, “Oh, you’re fine,” or whatever. If they say something to me, then I think the only thing I could really do is listen. 

I started getting all these letters coming in. I try to be good about responding, but as these letters are coming in, they’re piling up. I didn't want to respond. It was just too hard. It always took me right back there again. It took a few weeks for me to start opening them up. 

Some of them were on very nice stationery. Some of them were on cards. There was one letter in particular from a retired older couple in Texas. I think she was a teacher, he was a post-office worker, fixed income. They don’t have any money to send or buy cards. They had a piece of paper and a handwritten note, saying, “Please know that we’re thinking about you and the community.” That letter really jumped out at me. They’re not going out buying a nice sympathy card or anything like that, they’re just doing what they can. I have a letter from a resident of Dayton. Then a week later, this happens to them. The letters I’ve received from all over the country have been . . . very, very nice. 

 

*                      *                      *

The Garlic Festival has changed how police departments are going to be responding to some of these large events. There are community events going on every weekend, all across the country. Whether it’s the Garlic Festival, some sort of Watermelon Festival, Arts and Wine Festival, whatever it happens to be, and police departments are asked to provide the security sometimes. Well, now they’re no longer going to want to show up with their sidearm. They’re going to want to be armed to the teeth. I think that is really changing how our police departments are going to respond in the future to these large community events because they’re such easy targets. I would hate to have a quasi-military operation have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to go out and celebrate and have fun at events. Each community has to decide for themselves, what is their appropriate level of response? And, frankly, who’s going to pay for it? Somebody has to pay for it.

I teach Political Science at Gavilan College. One of the students asked, “Well, President Trump went to El Paso and Dayton, but he didn’t come here.” I thought about it. I told the class, “Personally, I’m glad he didn’t come here.” If I got a phone call from the White House that says, “Mayor, hold for a moment while I transfer you to the President,” my first thought is, “Well, shit, I’m going to talk to the President.” When the President comes on and says, “I want to go to Gilroy,” my second thought is, “Oh shit, he’s coming here. I really don’t want that for the community.”

I knew that if President Trump came, it would no longer be about the Garlic Festival. It would be about President Trump, whether you like him or you hate him, or it would be about gun control. It would be about any other issue other than the victims. Gilroy would only be the backdrop of the visit. That’s not what I wanted. I feel funny that we were overlooked. When I hear about all the other mass shootings and Gilroy’s not mentioned, I’m glad that Gilroy was not politicized. I’m grateful that the President didn’t come.

© 2020 Reed Magazine, San José State University.

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