The power of words: Bucks groups hold vigil, discussion addressing recent police-related deaths

IMG_2209“Excuse me, everybody, I’d like to say something.”

The request came, loudly, from a man who’d positioned himself in front of the people standing at State and Centre streets in Newtown on Tuesday night. He wore a baseball cap, short-sleeved shirt, Dockers, sunglasses and loafers. He was white.

“I appreciate that you want to end racist behavior. The first step is understanding,” he continued. The crowd, chatting moments earlier, was now silent. “However, I don’t see one poster that says support the police or support our veterans. So you have a one-sided view, OK?

“Also, I only see one person of color, this gentleman right here in blue. So if you want to talk about ending racism, let’s see some Hispanic people, some Asian people — the majority of people here are white, so let’s start facing the facts. It represents — speak with action.”

He then turned down someone’s invitation to make a sign and join them, saying he had to go to work, and walked away. Nearby, Noor Phillips, who had cut short a statement she was making about white privilege to listen, commented on the exchange.

“There are a lot more than one man here. He just happens to be the darkest,” she noted.

At the time, there were six or seven African-Americans in the crowd besides that one man in the plain blue T-shirt, along with a few Indian women. More people of color arrived as the group swelled to around 65 people on all four corners of the town’s main drag.

They were there for a vigil followed by a discussion at a nearby Quaker Meetinghouse. According to an announcement by the Peace Center in Langhorne, which coordinated the events, the gatherings were held to mourn the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were shot and killed by police last week, and the five police officers shot during a subsequent demonstration in Dallas, Texas.

“We are hoping to bring out more acknowledgment and understanding of the violence that’s going on, the violence that doesn’t need to go on, and there are ways to deal with disagreements without violence,” Phillips, assistant to the outreach director at the Zubaida Foundation, one of the event’s sponsors, explained.

Members of the Peace Center, Zubaida Foundation and other groups emailed and posted on social media, encouraging people to join them. Many of the signs those people brought featured generalized slogans: “Peace,” “End Racist Behavior,” “Disarm Hate” and “Love Thy Neighbor — No Exceptions.” The few mentioning names or statistics referenced only those shot by police.

If not mentioning the fallen officers was an oversight, it was one the vigil’s organizers and participants would have liked to rectify.

“My gut reaction is to want to talk with him, but I could see that he had to strike up a lot of courage to say what he said, and he made some assumptions that are incorrect,” said Barbara Simmons, executive director of the Peace Center, regarding the dissenter.

Assumptions, she explained, are a big part of why the Peace Center engages in activities like these: “A lot of people do that. We create stereotypes and then we act on them.”

She noted he also turned down a second invitation to join the discussion after the vigil: “He seemed more interested in just giving his opinion.”

Had he stuck around, perhaps he would have found some common ground.

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“We thought maybe there would be officers here coming for us to support them. I’m sure they’re scared everywhere now,” said Richboro resident Michelle Check. It was her first time coming out to an event like this, and she was inspired to do so after hearing about the police officers who were killed. “I wanted to come here for peace for everyone, to stop the hatred. If everyone’s a part of it, maybe we can do something about it.”

That’s what the group attempted to do next. At the Meetinghouse, the 50 or so remaining participants broke off into pairs with people they didn’t know to share their experiences with racism. Then, as a group, they talked about what they’d heard.

A white woman, for instance, said she never considered teaching her daughter to keep her hands on the steering wheel during a traffic stop in order to not appear threatening to an officer, something minorities say they stressed when their children learned to drive.

IMG_2275Elsewhere, an African-American man recounted dropping off his daughter at a Council Rock elementary school, only to be told moments late by a police officer to “get moving.” Someone else told the story of a black friend who got pulled over in Yardley because the officer said she “seemed lost.” A fourth-generation Newtown resident and African-American talked about how she felt after someone painted swastikas on nearby traffic signs.

“I have fears I shouldn’t have to carry,” she said.

These exchanges spoke to Phillips’ comments earlier in the eventing regarding privilege and perspective. “The minority knows the majority, but the majority rarely knows the minority,” she reiterated at the discussion.

When it came time to turn words into actions, people suggested ways to speak up against injustices they witness themselves, and how to engage with people with different communities either on their own or through their churches and synagogues.

IMG_2260“Having conversations with people who are not like you is a good start,” said Danny Thomas. A member of the Mt. Hope Methodist Church, he co-led the discussions with Simmons, and urged people to continue having them after the meeting.

Those conversations can be awkward, he acknowledged, but necessary to enact change: “Get over your fears of each other. Find your allies.”

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