BRATTLEBORO — As the morning of Sunday, May 31 was making way for afternoon, the street was quiet. People, young and old, almost entirely in masks, almost every single person carrying a handmade sign, assembled, clustering tentatively along a sidewalk that few have graced in the time of COVID-19.
The gathering picked up steam on the street corners, where Elliot meets Main and where Main meets High at Pliny Park. Under the steady sun, people streamed to the sidewalks in droves, as organizers with bullhorns, some encrusted with activist bumper stickers as battle scars from movements past, swiftly and affirmatively moved through the streets, urging social distancing.
Young people. Old people. Staid middle-agers. Twentysomethings covered with ink. And most befittingly, a significant number of people of color who came to mourn and grieve and rage for their own. Organizers made it clear that this would be their rally, their space, befitting their anger, their terror, their grief.
With clusters of family units keeping themselves apart in 6-foot intervals along Main Street - intervals measured by the names in colored chalk of Black people killed by police - the chanting began.
No justice. No peace.
Say his name. George Floyd.
“When I say 'Black lives,' you say, 'matter,'” prompted Vicky Senni, one of the organizers. “Black lives.”
For a gathering that drew upwards of 1,000 people downtown, this was no parade, though the crowd eventually did walk together somberly and deliberately to the Town Common to reflect on the recent killing that has tipped so many cities in the United States into violence and chaos.
On May 25, Derek Chauvin, a police officer in Minneapolis, detained Floyd on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Despite the pleas of bystanders, EMS personnel, and the detainee, Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes.
In an unusually decisive response that came with unusual haste and an unusual amount of public condemnation, Chauvin was fired and later arrested on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Floyd's death is the latest in a long list of people of color, mainly Black men, who have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement officers who have inflicted lethal force in situations where protestors say other suspects - white suspects - would have been given the benefit of the doubt.
Chauvin's career was riddled with complaints about excess use of force, including two other shootings.
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Sunday's event came together in two days, said Anna Mullany, a member of Brattleboro Solidarity and one of the hosts of Indigo Radio, a weekly show hosted by her and other educators and broadcast on WVEW. Those two grassroots organizations and a third, the Brattleboro Tenants Union, came together to make it happen.
“The core group of us have been working for so long together that we've done turnaround events like this before,” she said on Monday. “And I think that we work really well together.”
“Show up for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality,” read the title of the Facebook event page. “We demand justice for the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, and all those targeted by police brutality,” read the title of the post. The name of the event wasn't the point. It was large enough and important enough not to need one.
“I just want to be honest, I think we were really amazed by the turnout,” Mullany noted. “I think that it shows a lot about this community.”
“We've gotten so much response via social media of just people really needing a space to air their voice and be in solidarity with the rest of the nation that is sort of rising up in this rebellion,” Mullany said. “And I think that it was great to have that space yesterday for people to be able to do that, because it's not as if Brattleboro is exempt from these problems.”
Back at the rally, some people used pan lids as makeshift percussion instruments, accompanying the chants. No justice. No peace. Boom-boomboom, boom-boom.
Say his name. Trayvon Martin.
Say her name. Sandra Bland.
No justice. No peace.
One protestor with white hair proudly made the V-for-victory peace sign. Two participants wrapped to their ears in black paraded through the crowd carrying a defaced black-striped Blue Lives Matter flag upside down. Multiple people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and complexions raised their fists, the classic gesture of solidarity and resistance.
And lining Main Street, from Malfunction Junction to the Town Common, hundreds of people held signs with messages that ranged from starkly simple names of dead people of color to phrases seemingly engineered to provoke reactions from law enforcement.
Yet they didn't.
For an extended time, Lt. Carl Warner stood, stone-faced, in a foyer on Elliot Street. In front of him sat a protester holding a sign, Good cops dont exist [sic].
Across the street nearby, Town Manager Peter Elwell stood on the sidewalk, staking out his position “like a tree” so he could be found easily by his colleagues.
Elwell praised participants for making strong points peacefully. He described a few minor isolated incidents, but he said that most of the interactions between police and protestors, many carrying signs that challenged the existence of law enforcement, were respectful.
On Monday, Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald echoed Elwell's comments, characterizing Sunday's gathering as a “tutorial on how to hold a demonstration.”
“I have always been in awe at our community's level of participation in peacefully expressing themselves, especially in the area of reform,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email.
On Monday, in response to a question about the awkwardness of working with police officers in the context of an action that criticized some of the very institutions of their profession, Mullany credited the work of Mikaela Simms, the diversity coordinator for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, in helping members of the police department and other town employees realize “how youth of color are treated.”
The town has also been tackling issues of race in hiring practices, and in recent months it has hired Dottie Morris as diversity officer.
Consequently, the police attended and worked at the rally, but they “really kept away from it,” Mullany said. “All they wanted to do was to close down the street for us, and they had said that they would stay out of the way. And I think that was great for yesterday.”
Before the road was closed for the march to the Town Common, drivers coming through made some opinions known. From one passing vehicle, one woman growled indignantly, “White lives matter!”
Some of the participants described a few similar random incidents. But for several hours, any such reaction was muted by an overwhelming show of public support, as cars moved through town, sounding their horns in time with the chanting. Honk-honkhonk, honk-honk. No justice, no peace.
Several groups of motorcyclists moved through town with various members flashing a thumbs-up. Every now and then, a car passed through town, its driver revving the engine enthusiastically, creating what one bystander described as “rolling coal.”
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By 1:30 p.m., police closed Main Street, and participants walked, maintaining distance as much as possible and still chanting, to the Town Common.
There, Nicole Awwad of Brattleboro Solidarity would host two people who would speak briefly.
“There's not all bad cops,” the first speaker, Tary Mitchell, would say. “There're a lot of good cops, but there's cops that don't care, because that's the way they was taught.”
“It's not fair that just because of my color I should be treated different,” said Mitchell, a large Black man with multicolored dreads who would pose a simple question to the white people in the audience.
He would reference the arrest of Dylann Roof, a then-19-year-old white supremecist who perpetrated the mass shooting of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, S.C. in 2015. Roof was captured alive by police, who by many accounts at the time provided him with a fast-food hamburger after he was in custody.
“They brought him to Burger King,” Mitchell would tell the crowd, listening raptly with occasional affirmations underscoring his points. “What do you think would have happened if that was me? I would not be here speaking.”
“I'm asking every last one of y'all to look around at each other,” he would continue. “Look around at each other. We mixed in the mix, just to be here for something positive. And nobody throwing no rocks, nobody beating up nobody - this is peace, and that's all we ask for. If we can do this together, we can do a lot together.”
Mitchell would hand the microphone to educator/activist Dr. Janaki Natarajan. “One was made to die under the knee of the other,” she would ask. “Is that the relationship we want amongst humans?”
And the hundreds of people on the Town Common would respond in unison, “No.”
Natarajan would point out the economic ties to racial inequality. “The owners, and the working people have been destroyed in so many ways all through human history,” she would say, and to the crowd's response, she would declare that “we want to be on the side of a new human history.”
“They are using color and everything else to divide us,” she would say. “It's not enough to have feelings. It's not enough to say nice things. It's not enough to recycle. It's not enough to be satisfied with ourselves.”
“We have to have discipline. We have to have study. And we have to organize and not think that we are exceptional. We have to create the foundations and the basis and the new structures for a new humanity. Are you ready?”
“Yes,” the crowd would respond.
“Are you ready?” she would ask, once again, more firmly.
“Yes,” the crowd would respond again.
“All right,” she would say. “Now I can say I love you.”
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All of that would happen on Sunday afternoon at the Town Common, but not until Awwad would lead the crowd in not one moment of silence but eight minutes.
Eight long, excruciating minutes, symbolizing the eight minutes that Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd's neck.
And for a crowd of hundreds who had spent the previous two hours making themselves heard, for those eight minutes, there was absolute silence.
Beyond the noise of cars in the distance, all you could hear was a strong breeze cutting through the heat of the afternoon, rustling the still-young leaves on the canopy of maples on the Common while Awwad stood on the gazebo, marking the time.
Across the public space, people of various races and genders and ages and backgrounds looked down at the lush grass and up at the blue sky. One young adult, sitting on the ground, bowed and hid his head in contemplation. Another twentysomething stared ahead with somber dignity, resolutely holding her raised fist high.
In that simple stillness, in the relative safety and privilege of southern Vermont, in a small town that has been exempt from the flames throughout the nation which have riveted the attention of a world, a community felt the weight of that knee and the loss of that life - and started envisioning what might come next for them and for all of us on a terrifying road ahead on a long, complicated, fraught, traumatic journey.