WESTMINSTER — A flashlight vigil Friday drew an estimated 15,000 people to Little Saigon for an evening of prayer and protest against what speakers called continued human rights violations in Vietnam, Westminster police said.
The gathering was the largest in weeks of demonstrations against a merchant who posted a Communist flag and a photograph of Ho Chi Minh in his Westminster video rental store, inflaming the immigrant population centered in Little Saigon, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Asia.
"The idea here is to promote unity in the community and nonviolence for the protest," said Diem Hoang Do, one of the organizers. "We want to put the focus on human rights violations in Vietnam."
Westminster Police Lt. Bob Burnett said the crowd massed in the shopping center parking lot and overflowed into parking areas of retail shops more than a mile away, blocking merchants from their own businesses at times.
"The area is becoming very impacted, and we're having to control traffic by closing some streets," Burnett said.
By 9 p.m., the throng was boisterous but peaceful, singing, praying and shouting in a show of unity organized by more than 20 Vietnamese student and religious groups. The rally had opened with prayers offered by clergy of five faiths.
Organizers said one purpose of Friday's rally, in which flashlights replaced candles for safety reasons, was to present a more dignified picture of the Vietnamese immigrant population while reiterating its fierce opposition to Communism.
"We feel that emotion may have been misinterpreted, and we want to have a chance to project a more positive image," Do said.
Images of anger and confrontation more often have been captured by the news media at past rallies, Do said. During those demonstrations, he said, people were expressing the deep pain they feel over the issue.
Single-handedly inflaming the anti-Communist furor of the community has been Truong Van Tran, 37. Tran has said that he hung the Communist flag and portrait of the late Vietnamese leader in his Bolsa Avenue store only to provoke a community dialogue about the current Vietnamese government.
Friday's protest drew a loud and decidedly younger turnout than past protests. Vietnamese and American flags were waved as speakers took the stage and the audience switched flashlights on and off.
"A lot of people were saying the fight against Communism is for the old people. Tonight is to show the younger generation that, although they don't live in harsh conditions, we have to fight to get Communism out of the world," said Viet Dzung, a singer and radio disc jockey.