A year ago today, the world was in lockdown due to the pandemic. Many of us were glued to the news, and had heard about Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man who was shot while jogging in February. That tragic act was quickly followed by another when Breonna Taylor, a Black 26-year-old emergency room technician, was shot in her own home during a botched police raid. There was collective outrage and grief. “How is this still happening?” was a question mostly white people were finally starting to ask. Black people didn’t need to ask; they have always known it was possible.
And then George Floyd was killed, beneath the knee of the now convicted Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, on May 24, 2020. That incident was recorded by a 17-year-old woman named Darnella Frazier.
The video went viral and sparked the #BlackLIvesMatter protests and vigils that spread around the globe, including several here on the North Fork. Days after Floyd’s death, I reached out to Pastor Natalie Wimberly of Greenport’s Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church to ask if she was planning anything in response. She sent me a flyer for a candlelight vigil that took place in front of the church on June 3, 2020. In the days leading up to the vigil, she said she anticipated a few dozen people would show up. I countered, “It will be many more.” She said, “We shall see.” I suspected that our entire community — Black, brown and white — needed a place to grieve collectively for George Floyd, who suddenly represented, in that heightened moment, all of those Black lives lost to racial violence. “Well, you were right!” she said, after hundreds of people filled Third Street that evening and joined in Pastor Wimberly’s collective chant at the end: Black Lives Matter.
“For me, this is not a political issue. It’s a humanitarian one. I believe that a Black life matters as much as any other life. Everyone should be treated with equal justice and fairness. It is that simple.”
This Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of Mr. Floyd’s death, and there will be another vigil at Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church at 7 p.m. Several faith leaders will once again join the Rev. Wimberly to reflect on the “uncommon courage” it takes to stand up against racism when we see it. In an organizing call for the event, Pastor Wimberly spoke of her inspiration for the theme: Darnella Frazier’s bravery — not only to film the incident, but also to take the witness stand during the Chauvin trial, where she broke down in tears, wishing she had done more to save George Floyd’s life.
A similar video was circulated in 2014, which captured the death of Eric Garner, a 44-year-old Black man who was arrested for selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. That video was filmed by Ramsey Orta, another brave bystander, and it fueled the then nascent Black Lives Matter movement, which was born after George Zimmerman, the man who killed 16-year-old Trayvon Martin, was acquitted in 2013. My daughter was 5 months old when Trayvon was murdered and I began to notice the stories of so many Black lives lost — Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland. She was 4 years old when Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop. His girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter was in the back seat and can be heard on the video her mother, Diamond Reynolds, took of the incident: “Mommy, I don’t want you to get shooted.”
I have been following and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement since those early days and finally placed a sign in my Orient front yard in solidarity. I asked a local friend what he thought. “People are not going to like it,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“They think it stands for Burn Loot Murder.”
I had not heard that before and was stunned. There were a few BLM signs I’d spotted around town — but Equal Rights Equal Justice is spelled out beneath the initials. Their presence inspired me to get my own, which states plainly: Black Lives Matter.
For me, this is not a political issue. It’s a humanitarian one. I believe that a Black life matters as much as any other life. Everyone should be treated with equal justice and fairness. It is that simple.
So I was happy when another elderly white neighbor recently asked where I got my sign. He wanted to put one up as well, though his wife first wanted to know, “Have you gotten into any trouble?”
I knew what she meant.
Our sign was cut down once. Another time, we received an anonymous note about how the BLM movement was using funds in suspicious ways. Neither act discouraged me. I kept my sign up. I understand that putting a sign in our yard invites attention. It’s what Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” calls “breaking with whiteness.” Standing out from the crowd. That, for white people, is difficult. It can be uncomfortable. And it can also, in a small way, be brave.
But it does not even come close to what Darnella Frazier or Ramsey Orta or Diamond Reynolds did. Those were acts of uncommon courage that have led to life-saving systemic change. My sign is my very small way to support such extraordinary courage. I hope others will be similarly inspired.
Liz Welch is a writer who has lived in Orient since 2002.