Continuing “Conversations on Systemic Racism”: Sunday’s vigil and a movie discussion

by beth on June 17, 2020

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Above: Participants in the Southborough vigil took part in a long moment of silence for George Floyd. Now they’re being encouraged to follow up on homework. (photo by Beth Melo)

On Sunday night, a couple of hundred people gathered in spaced clusters on the St. Mark’s field in Southborough. The community attended to participate in a “Candlelight Vigil for Peace and Racial Justice”. 

Community leaders and residents spoke on issues related to racism from police violence to racial slurs and “microagressions”. Remarks included calls to action. Multiple speakers told attendees that it’s not enough to not be racist. They urged being “anti-racist” and having “uncomfortable conversations”.

For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, participants observed a moment of silence (Photo by Beth Melo)Following the speeches, attendees lit candles. During the 8 minute and 46 second moment of silence in memory of George Floyd, most chose to kneel. 

The event was organized by Neighbors for Peace. Speakers included Selectwoman Lisa Braccio (who described herself as the mother of a future police officer), the Southborough Police Chief, and State Senator Jamie Eldridge.

They also included two residents who shared their experiences as members of bi-racial families living in the mostly white town of Southborough for decades. A group of teens also participated, reading an essay.

In closing remarks, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church’s Father Phil Labelle announced that the rally was just a start. He invited the public to be part of ongoing conversations. The next one would be a discussion about a movie streaming free online. The crowd was encouraged to join the Neighbors for Peace email list.

This afternoon, they announced updated information, including a date change:

Join Southborough Neighbors for Peace in a continuing conversation on systemic racism on Thursday, June 25 at 7pm. The film “Just Mercy” explores the early work of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization that provides free legal support to the incarcerated. Mr. Stevenson takes on the appeal of Walter “Johnny D” McMillan who is on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. The film is streaming free online — see JustMercyFilm.com—and provides an entrance into the conversation on systemic racism.

Join the Southborough Neighbors for Peace email list — text SBORO to 66866 — for specific information on the Zoom Chat. We look forward to continued conversation.

For those of you who have Prime, the movie is also streaming there.

Below are highlights from the vigil. 

[Editor’s Note: I was able to record some of the opening remarks. But thanks to a dying phone battery, I’ve had to rely on my sparse notes for subsequent speakers.

Fortunately, Southborough Access Media was also there. Unfortunately, that video isn’t posted yet. They hope to get their video up sometime this week. I’ll share it when available.]

Father Labelle opened the event by recounting a memory that kept popping up to disturb him recently. It was of himself as a young child, repeatedly singing a “ditty” with a “racial slur” that made adults in his family laugh.

The white reverend said that he grew up in the suburbs of Detroit as part of a family and community he described as “equal opportunity racists”. As people who were otherwise good all around, he said they didn’t view themselves that way. But, “we didn’t see others who were different than us as equal. Vulgar epitaphs were in plentiful supply.”

He told the crowd:

it’s important for me to recognize my own involvement in a system that has generously placed me in its good graces and while it simultaneously looks down on and oppresses others because of their skin color. 

He followed that he needed to become anti-racist, someone who actively works against racism, because that is truly what being the opposite of a racist is. 

It was a sentiment echoed by subsequent speakers. Black resident David Joyner quoted Martin Luther King, jr.:

David Joyner spoke at Southborough's rallyIn the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends

Prior to that, Joyner referred to widespread protests as part of a long overdue, uncomfortable conversation. He told the crowd that you don’t make progress by being comfortable. He again quoted the slain civil rights leader, saying, “Riots are the language of the unheard.”

Joyner shared an uncomfortable conversation of his own recently with his daughters. They questioned him and his wife on why they raised them in Southborough. He said it was hard to hear that for them, being the only black children in their classrooms became a burden.

The resident also spoke of the microagressions against black people, including youth who carry them for years later. Joyner recounted one of his own experiences when the mother of a scout who rang his doorbell asked if he lived there. (It was a question that his wife later confirmed hadn’t been asked of neighbors.)

Joyner said that after protests broke out over the murder of George Floyd, other black men he knew in town reached out. They wondered if they should introduce themselves to Southborough Police. He told them he would only participate if it was part of a larger discussion about issues. He thought that would be the end of it. Instead, he heard back about plans for the rally.

Earlier in the vigil, Chief Kenneth Paulhus told attendees he hoped the SPD would “continue to earn your trust and respect here in Southborough.”

Leading up to that, he referred to policing as largely local. He said that his department’s relationship with the community appears to be strong. But he acknowledged that can quickly break down. He also shared with the crowd that his views on community policing are based on the principals of Robert Peel. (You can read more about those here.)

Selectwoman Lisa Braccio spoke about the need to “come together”. She said that could only happen when we realize there are more good police officers than bad.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz of Congregation B’nai Shalom brought up “Loving Day”. It’s the June 12th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision striking down laws against interracial marriages. She referred to her experiences going places where she and her wife felt unwelcome. She lamented that there were people who believe they have the right to say who someone is allowed to love.

The Loving Day theme was also raised in the comments of resident Lizzie Narcisse. She described herself as someone bi-racial who can pass for white. She spoke of her horror when she saw the movie Holes, and saw a black man killed for kissing a white woman. She was afraid that might happen to her parents.

Narcisse said she doesn’t want to hear white people using the n-word, even when quoting a rap song. She also sought to clear up misunderstandings about the phrases White Privilege and Black Lives Matter. (You can read more about the terms here and here.)

In one of the more emotional moments of the evening, Narcisse proclaimed to black “brothers and sisters” that they would never be alone again. They never should have been.

Rep. Carolyn Dykema was originally slated to speak. She was unable to attend due to health reasons. (Facebook posts since on the event page announce that her Covid-19 test came back negative.)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 GIB HASE June 17, 2020 at 6:25 PM

Mr. and Mrs. Joyner can be proud of their two daughters and the article written on their ARHS classmates. Extremely well written and sad to learn what some young children have to go through.
An Indian family that I knew from town revealed that their two boys also were subjected to racial
abuse so it lives among us.

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2 Diane Romm June 17, 2020 at 6:48 PM

I’m posting this as a comment here simply to bring it to the attention of the community.

One of the officers in the latest incident in which a black man is killed while running away and being shot in the back twice is from Southborough??????? A 2012 graduate of Algonquin Regional?????

https://patch.com/massachusetts/northborough/officer-involved-rayshard-brooks-shooting-southborough

As someone who has taught Culture and Psychology for several years, I find it troubling that it has taken events like this to finally raise awareness…..

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