A Moving Vigil Strengthens Residents Resolve to Fight Racism and Police Brutality

vigil2Throughout this past weekend, the Scarsdale Village seemed to be in full pre-summer bloom, filled with shoppers, walkers, and restaurant-goers whose masks were the only indication that these were not-at-all normal times. On Sunday night, however, the relaxed atmosphere abruptly changed minutes after 6 pm, as Scarsdale residents gathered in and around Chase Park to attend the Vigil for George Floyd and Victims of Police Brutality. In an event that attracted at least 350 black-clad residents and featured nine powerful speakers, the citizens of Scarsdale made it abundantly clear that even if police brutality and systemic racism have not devastated our city like others, they are still scourges at the forefront of our collective consciousness.

The organizers of the event, four young Scarsdalians and members of the Scarsdale High School Class of 2016, greeted the crowd by explaining the purpose of the event. Mentioning the names of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, they acknowledged the limitations of their own perspective, with three-of-four of them being white, while emphasizing the importance of listening and reflecting on the current nationwide movement for change. Standing on a raised podium in the upper center of the park, they were surrounded on all sides by residents young and old, many of whom carried signs reading “Enough is enough” or “I can’t breathe,” and all of whom wore masks in order to be admitted onto the park’s grass. A few mutters and shuffles could be heard as the organizers finished speaking, but as Scarsdale Mayor Marc Samwick stepped up to the microphone his words rang out to a crowd hanging on his each and every word.

Samwick led off a line-up of nine speakers which included county officials, students, and long-time Scarsdale vigil4residents, each of whom offered a different viewpoint on how racism plays out in policing, education, and other areas, even in a progressive community like Scarsdale. The black community of Scarsdale, and especially the city’s black youth, was strongly represented by current Scarsdale High School students and college students. These speakers expressed frustration with an education system that consistently failed to represent the voices and history of their community, and stressed that attending a vigil was far from enough to confront long-standing racial inequities in Scarsdale and the broader US. Zoë Sussman, a graduating senior at SHS, captured the urgency of change when she said that “doing the bare minimum in 2020 is simply unacceptable.”

vigil3Throughout the event, there was no dearth of concrete policy and individual goals proposed. Shawn Patterson-Howard, the first woman of color to hold a mayoral position in Westchester and the current mayor of Mount Vernon, called for the repeal of provision 50-A, a statute of New York state law which shields police officers’ disciplinary records from the public eye (and that is expected to be repealed by the state legislature this week). The potential awkwardness of her calls for police reform, as officers lined the perimeter of the park and closed off traffic to make room for the vigil, was not lost on Ms. Patterson-Howard, as she acknowledged the important work of cops while adding “it’s hard to be a good cop in such a broken system.” Other speakers, such as former SHS teacher and the first black GQ cover-model Rashid Silvera, drew on decades of personal experience with racism and implored the audience to seek out lessons from the past to shape the current movement. The stories of two former law enforcement stand-outs, Arnold W. James and Steve McDonald, guided the speeches of Silvera and Petero Sabune, a Nigerian-American reverend who said that “seeing each other as human beings” is essential in order to prevent future tragedies like George Floyd’s.

vigil6The last speaker of the night, famed musician and Hamilton actor Christopher Jackson, admitted that he was glad the vigil had been delayed from its original date of Friday, June 5th, because the rain gave him more time to think about what he wanted to say. His core message - that we must “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” - dovetailed well with the prevailing atmosphere of the vigil, one that was both deeply fed up with the current state of racism in our country but also hopeful for the future. Even after Jackson’s speech ended and the vigil concluded with an eight-minute and 46 second moment of silence (the duration representing the time that Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck), his closing lines seemed to permeate the park as people filed out. He urged everyone in attendance to “never underestimate what a small group of people with conviction, with heart, and with perseverance can do to change the world - because that’s the only thing that ever has.” One can only hope that the verve of Scarsdale residents who turned out with signs and supportive shouts will truly become the action that Jackson and the other speakers demanded.

Photo Credits: Jack Silvers and Flo Weiner