Thursday night, students and other community members gathered at the Diag to hold a candlelit vigil dedicated to Alton Sterling, who was fatally shot by Baton Rouge police officers outside a convenience store Tuesday in Louisiana, and Philando Castile, who was fatally shot Wednesday in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, at a traffic stop by a police officer.
The vigil was organized by a group of several University of Michigan students, who did not represent a specific organization on campus but collaborated in light of the recent events.
LSA junior Nikole Miller, one of the organizers, said she was motivated to organize the event because of her family.
“When you have men in your family, it hurts you,” Miller said. “I woke up this morning crying. When you feel that kind of pain, you know you have to do something.”
The vigil featured several speakers from the University community, who shared their perspectives on the recent events, life as a Black person and racism in general.
A few speakers discussed the details of the recent events, emphasizing that the shootings were not justified and that there is a deadly pattern in the interaction between the police and the Black community. LSA junior Arlyn Reed, who is also a Central Student Government representative, said this pattern is in part due to racism, and the lack of trust between young Black men and the police.
“What we should be able to plainly see is that this is in part — and I want to emphasize ‘in part’ — fueled by white supremacy, which reinforces the idea that Black bodies are inherently dangerous and feeds into the irrational fears about Black people,” Reed said. “What we should also be able to plainly see is the deadly disconnect between the young African American men and the police.”
LSA junior Mariah Smith shared her experiences growing up as a Black person, saying that initially she was afraid to be Black but she has embraced her identity as she grew up.
“To me, being Black meant being a slave, being powerless, being fearful and being unintelligent,” Smith said. “But now, I’m learning to embrace my Blackness. Being Black means something totally different to me now. It means intelligent, being strong, being powerful, being everything they said we aren’t.”
Many people of diverse racial backgrounds attended the vigil. Some of those in attendance who were not Black referred to themselves as “allies” of the cause. Rebecca Elias, a social worker in Ann Arbor, said she attended the vigil because she has been fighting against racism and the oppression of vulnerable people for many years.
Elias said that when she saw the video of Castile’s death, she was outraged by how the new generation will grow up witnessing the consequences of discrimination. She specifically mentioned Castile’s 4-year-old child, who was present in the car with Castile’s fiancée when Castile was shot.
“I couldn’t get the voice of the 4-year-old out of my head,” Elias said. “I can’t be okay with the fact another generation is experiencing these things because this colors (the child’s) world. She won’t grow up ever feeling safe again.”
Elias added that she felt frustrated during the vigil because people who should be at the vigil, such as people who are not aware of the current events or are against the Black Lives Matter movement, were not present.
“I have been to many events like this, and, even more powerfully this time, I thought the wrong people are at this event,” Elias said. “The people who need to be here are not. And I need to know, as an ally, as a human and as an advocate, what the next step is. How do we get people who are not our allies here?”
On the same night, snipers opened fire at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, where a primary suspect was believed to have frustrations with police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. The snipers are believed to have targeted white people, specifically white police officers, and fatally injured five officers after shooting twelve.
The shooting has sparked national conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and has drawn further attention to the victims of police brutality, such as Sterling and Castile.
At the vigil, a petition calling for civilian oversight of police was circulated. Miller said the organizers were motivated to start this petition because it is dangerous for one group to have control of the justice system.
“The justice system should not (be) placed in just one group’s hands,” Miller said. “We hope more can be done (with the overseeing group).”
Miller added that different groups would need to come together in solidarity to make such changes.
“The recent killings started getting a lot of publicity and now everybody’s getting on board,” Miller said. “We need more people onboard — we need police officers on board, we need Congress on board, we need the president after Obama to be on board … it can’t just stop here.”