Community members lit candles, sung songs and reflected on the current Black Lives Matter movement currently occupying the country at Marcia’s Park on June 12.
Posters, flowers and candles were placed on the brick flower bed, which aimed to act as a memorial. The names of Black Americans who have fallen at the hands of police brutality were chalked into municipal park’s asphalt pathways.
“We felt like we wanted a more permanent symbol that could represent our town’s commitment towards justice,” said Christian Shushok, one of the event’s organizers. “That’s why this is here. That's why these names are chalked on the floor … we think it’s important to have a rally point, a gathering place, to create space where everyone can go mourn and grieve and look towards the future and the fight for justice.”
Shushok said the placement of the memorial next to the police station was intentional. The memorial serves not only as a place for people to grieve, but a reminder to police that “the people stand with our fellow citizens, and we’re going to be watching you and holding you accountable.”
Dr. Brandy Faulkner, the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech and collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, was the first speaker at the vigil. Faulkner explained that Black Lives Matter transcends across all professions and systems because white supremacy and systemic racism isn't only apparent in the policing system.
“We don’t need allies,” Faulkner said. “What we need are liberation partners, those who recognize that their faith and our faith are intertwined. Those who show us solidarity so deep that there is no degree of separation between their lives and our lives.”
Faulkner stressed that as liberation partners, people need to show up to council meetings and town halls. People need to join advocacy groups and organizations. Faulkner’s last point was that liberation partners can’t be afraid to get hurt or take hits, and that “if you never risk anything, you are doing it wrong.”
Faulkner told the crowd that white supremacy is a powerful system and to prepare themselves to take hits.
“White supremacy is the most powerful concept ever thought up, and those who have power will do whatever it takes to keep it,” Faulkner said. “When you challenge that, you become a threat. If you don’t suffer because of it, you aren’t challenging.”
Organizers emphasized that the event was “Black-centric” and meant to uplift Black voices. The posters advertising this event declared that “This event is Black Centric. That Means: No white tears, no white fragility, no white violence. Do your homework before attending, and come as an Ally — not a savior.”
Within the young group of organizers, there was hesitation and dispute around whether to send this kind of message out. However, some organizers, including Shushok, thought it was important to be clear that even though there are relatively few Black people in Southwest Virginia, they’re still here and their small number is a more significant reason why their voices should be amplified.
After Faulkner’s speech, community members sat around the memorial and reflected for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time George Floyd was kneeled on. This is unlike the June 6 vigil and die-in where protesters lay on their stomachs for the duration of the eight minutes and 46 seconds.
“Laying on your stomach was definitely a moment of solidity with George Floyd legacy and George Floyd himself,'' Shushok said. “We wanted people to relish in the silence and relish with just how long that actually was and to provide a space to sit in the horror that was that event, but to also look within themselves and look into their community and ask themselves, ‘What am I doing?’ and ‘What am I going to do?’”
The moment of reflection led to shared testimonials and words of encouragement from community members.
The testimonials ranged from a mother telling the challenges her biracial son has faced while living in SWVA and his strength to overcome, a father detailing his 8-year-old son’s distressed reaction to the death of George Floyd, a teacher educating the crowd about the United States’ oppression of Black and brown people in and out of the country and more. Amid the testimonials, two community members proceeded to sing covers of “Amazing Grace” and “Down by the River.”
“When I was reflecting, I couldn’t help but think about being 7 years old and being in a car with my uncle and aunt, who was white, and being pulled over by the police asking me for my ID,” said Letisha Brown, Virginia Tech sociology professor. “I was 7 — I was scared — it was dark — and they kept badgering me for 10 mintues. I know that I cried out for my mother, and I know George Floyd cried out for his mother and his mother is gone. So knowing that really, really hurts and just made me feel like this was even more important for me to get up and say something afterwards.”
The event ended with the addition of more flowers and posters to the memorial and written messages on the pathways.
“Thinking about the current world situation, global pandemic, the peak anti-blackness thinking about a town that is a college town, a college town that boasts inclusion and diversity, that we have to have these types of moments and opportunities for people to have their voices heard,” Brown said. “There might not be a majority Black population here, but there are Black people, indigenous people in Blacksburg. There have been people hurt in Blacksburg. There are people hurting in Blacksburg because of what's going on in the world around us — so having these moments really matters.”