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Vigil for social justice draws a crowd to Harvard Common

For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, there was silence on the Harvard Common this past weekend. Blue skies had broken through the day’s early gloom to welcome a cool Sunday evening, and a breeze played through a crowd that filled half the field stretching in front of the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church. Most people knelt but some stood, lay, held signs, or thrust fists in the air, all holding still in solidarity with George Floyd, who died in police custody when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes on May 25. The silence on the Common was broken, finally, by the toll of the church’s bell.

The vigil was organized by the Social Justice Ministries Council of the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church. The council’s co-chairs, Colleen Pearce and Ginger Kendall, were instrumental in putting on the event but said it was a community effort.

“We thought it was really important that this small white town have a showing of solidarity and allyship with our black neighbors who are getting murdered at the hands of police,” explained Pearce. “We have a chance in this country for something really different to happen and we want to stand up and show that this is now and we can make a difference, and that this is an opportunity to write the book in a new way, one that we’ve never written before, one that includes justice, actually, for all and not just for some.”

Volunteers arrived at the Common early to inscribe the surrounding sidewalks with the names of 96 people of color who were killed at the hands of police across the country in recent years. Observers were later encouraged to follow the sidewalk, choose a name, and learn about that person.

The Rev. Jill Cowie welcomed the crowd with “We Bear the Weight of What They Could Not See,” a prayer written by James Leach, a white minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She then handed the microphone to Pearce, who acted as an emcee for the night.

Shantelle Castle of Harvard, a clinical social worker, member of Black Lives Matter, and a person of color herself, was the event’s main speaker. She outlined the history of violence against people of color in America, discussed the specific events that had led the crowd to gather that day, and called on people to practice activism.

‘We can’t stop here’

“My main message is that we can’t stop here, we need to keep going, we need to take action, we need to listen to people of color’s experiences,” Castle said in an interview before her speech. “I think that we, here in Harvard, need to stand up to racism on a systemic level. I think that we need to really understand who we’re voting for [and] the policies that we’re voting in when we vote for them.”

Harvard Police Chief Ed Denmark was the only on-duty law enforcement officer in attendance. He said that he felt he needed to be there because, as a person of color, he has witnessed the oppression black people feel in American society and has worked to combat it. “I felt that mistreatment so I kind of spent my career trying to work against that,” he explained in an interview. He wanted people to know that some authorities, like himself, are promoting change. “Not all police officers are bad … there are some of us on the inside working to try to change things.”

Denmark said that he does come up against issues of racial bias working in Harvard. “Nothing overt, but the little things that I have seen, you know, the citizen that calls [in a] suspicious person and we get there to only find out that there’s really nothing suspicious other than they [the caller] didn’t know them and it was a person of color.”

He said that situations like these put officers in a position of conflict, not because of their own bias, but because of the bias of people in the community they serve.

To prepare his officers to deal with racial issues, Denmark said he works to create an environment of open discussion. He said he tries to get his officers to ask themselves why they make a certain choice, prompting them to reflect on whether they take actions based on a person’s behavior or their appearance.

Following Castle’s speech, Pearce once again took the microphone. She thanked the crowd for their attendance and led a chant of “Black Lives Matter.”

“We must not stop here,” Pearce insisted, urging people to educate themselves and to make political decisions that reflect their advocacy.

Bit by bit, the crowd dispersed. By 6 p.m. only a few stragglers dotted the Common, chatting and lingering by the names of the 96 dead chalked on the sidewalks.

A group of young people stood on the corner of the four-way intersection between the Common and the General Store, holding signs. One of them, MJ Gamelin, is a resident of Ayer but graduated from the Bromfield School last year.

Intertwined histories

Gamelin drew a connection between social justice struggles that the LGBTQ community has faced over the past few decades and those that the black community is still in the midst of. “Queer history and black history in America are so intertwined. We have gay rights because black, trans women threw bricks at cops. If they didn’t stand up and do their part, a lot of queer people wouldn’t be here in this country today, wouldn’t feel safe to be themselves and so I think … if we as queer people don’t stand up and also help them out in this time, especially as white queer people, it’s really hypocritical.”

Gamelin sees education as a starting point for achieving greater racial justice in America and pointed to a lack of diversity in the Bromfield curriculum, “I went to Bromfield all through high school and middle school. In that entire time, I read books by black authors exactly twice and we kind of … talked about racism a little bit but ... it’s not enough.”

Gamelin said the system leaves kids to educate themselves on issues of race and doesn’t do enough to stimulate conversations about diversity. “In Harvard and in a lot of smaller, mostly white towns like this, there’s whole systems in place that we, as white people, just don’t even think about. I think the school needs to do a better job [of] starting that conversation and actually … having black people in our curriculum, because we really don’t.”

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