By Art Keene and Meg Gage
An estimated crowd of over 1000 people gathered on the Amherst Common on Sunday afternoon, for a vigil honoring the memory of George Floyd who was killed last Monday by Minneapolis police. Floyd (46), an unarmed black man, had been stopped for questioning by police on suspicion of passing a counterfeit bill. He died from asphyxiation after officers put him to the ground, cuffed him, and one officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The incident, filmed by multiple bystanders, captured Floyd complying with police directives and then, after being forced to the ground, struggling for air and pleading that he could not breathe as Officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into Floyd’s neck. All four officers involved in the incident have been fired and Chauvin has been charged with 3rd degree murder.
The Amherst Vigil was one of at least 140 protests across the United States. Protests were also held in the United Kingdom, Canada, China, France, New Zealand and several other countries.
In Amherst, protesters lined both sides of South Pleasant Street from Main to College and extended on both sides of College from South Pleasant beyond Boltwood, spreading out while attempting to maintain physical distancing. Most protestors held signs. All wore masks. There was considerable support indicated by passing motorists who honked horns and waived in solidarity. The demonstration, which began at 3 PM and was scheduled for one hour, went on for more than 2 hours. The vigil was envisioned as a silent event in order to reduce chanting and thereby minimize the health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless at one point some protestors took to a bullhorn to make speeches. In addition, there was constant and emotional chanting, with call and response springing up from different locations throughout the vigil.
The protesters were people of all ages including many families, parents with their young children, many holding age-appropriate, hand-made signs. While everyone wore masks and there were efforts to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, the crowd was so large, it wasn’t possible for everyone to stand along the street and to stay 6 feet apart. As a result, many dozens of people wandered around the middle of the Common, holding signs, chanting and enjoying the crowd.
Among the protesters were numerous familiar Amherst people representing many different neighborhoods, affiliations and constituencies.
Sara Barber-Just, a teacher at Amherst Regional High School, said:
“Today’s vigil/rally/protest in Amherst was “moving, huge, and powerful. It was the biggest action I’ve seen on the town common—ever. I’m proud to live in a community that shows its face: sad, disgusted, angry, vulnerable, and ready to fight—for the change this world needs.”
UMass Professor Max Page observed:
“there were so many ARHS students and alumni and their educators here today. Love that school – a place where reading, and thinking, and learning turns into standing up, showing up, taking action.
The Amherst police were not apparent until 4:00 PM, the planned end of the vigil, when a single police car, driven by an Amherst police woman of color, slowly drove down South Pleasant Street, politely asking people to move out of the street for their own safety. Everyone respectfully walked to the side of South Pleasant Street, but after she passed, everyone returned to the middle of the street where they stayed for about 10 more minutes. One participant said she chose to stand in the middle of the street because it was the only place she could remain SIX feet away from others.
Town Manager Paul Bockelman, issued a joint statement with other Town Officials, condemning police brutatlity and the killing of Floyd.
The vigil was organized by Peter Blood and Katie Tolles of the Interfaith Opportunities Network in response to concerns raised by the monks at the New England Peace Pagoda. In their call for a vigil in solidarity with the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor among other recent victims of violence in the African American community, the organizers called on “those from predominantly white faith communities to take responsibility for centuries of violence inflicted on Blacks in this country and to take action to end it.”
David Sharken, who came with his partner Verena Smith, said: “We were pulled to the protest because we felt that our white silence is part of the violence – our voices needed to be joined in a collective demand for change.”
Veteran activists suggested that this protest was the largest seen on the Common since the Vietnam War when protesters encircled the entire Town common week after week for several years. For many it was the first time that they had attended a public event since Governor Baker declared the COVID-19 state of emergency on March 10 and some explicitly acknowledged the balancing of the risk of the pandemic with the risk to our democracy evident in letting the tyranny and lawlessness of police violence go unaddressed.
Connie Kruger a former member of the Amherst Select Board said:
“I was there because I feel very dispirited by the killing of George Floyd and by all the other racial atrocities that have happened recently, and have been happening for way too long. I wanted to be with my community to stand up against the appalling murder of Mr. Floyd by a white police officer. I wanted to show solidarity with the movement for racial equality. The demonstration doesn’t take away the horror of the event or necessarily lead to change but it’s important to me that we all stand together. I haven’t been out and about much, like most of us, but whatever slight health risks might have been involved in gathering I thought it was worth it.”
Adrienne Terrrizzi, representing the Amherst League of Women Voters, said:
“The League had to be there to stand in solidarity with our Black communities against the violence and deeply imbedded systemic and institutional racism. Mourning George Floyd’s death, we are united with the NAACP in demanding transparency into the investigation and justice for all our neighbors. Most, importantly, all those young people who turned out to peacefully protest must turn out to vote in November, the next opportunity for critical change is at the ballot box.”
A GALLERY OF PHOTOS FROM THE VIGIL
(Photos by Art Keene and Meg Gage)