Jamee Johnson. Sandra Bland. Nina Pop. Tony McDade. George Floyd. Eric Garner. Ahmaud Arbery. Trayvon Martin. Breonna Taylor. Robert Dentmond. David McAtee. Layleen Polanco. Walter Scott.
Their names and faces lined a makeshift altar, filled with flowers and flames atop white wax candles. Outside Heavener Hall on the corner of University Avenue and 13th Street Wednesday night, more than 400 people attended a vigil in honor of those lost from the black community.
The energy of the evening was sustained by the crowd’s cries for change and demands for a future with less division.
Cars driving past the scene honked their horns in support, some with windows declaring statements in white chalk paint—“black lives matter,” “say their names.”
Catherine Jean, a 38-year-old member of Guerrilla Medics, an organization that provides medical support for protests and marches, said that nearly 100 percent of the crowd wore face masks. She said she was grateful that people followed COVID-19 precautions.
Volunteers wearing facial coverage and gloves distributed water, masks, candles and flowers to the crowd filling the street corner.
Some entered the vigil with large shopping bags of additional water and candles, asking where to drop off donations. The community stood together in wait.
Rain began to drizzle down on the crowd around 7:30 p.m., the announced start time. As those in attendance shielded themselves from the droplets, a voice shouted, “Don’t light your candles yet, we’ll be here rain or shine!”
Shortly after the vigil began, members and friends of the Goddsville Dream Defenders spoke to the crowd about the exploitation of black lives they said the country’s institutions were founded upon. They also spoke about the unlevel playing field that is a consequence of this system.
Brandon McKay, a 20-year-old UF biotechnology junior, shared a poem he wrote earlier that day.
“Lynching doesn’t always happen with a rope,” he recited. “Sometimes it happens with a knee.”
Kiara Laurent, a 21-year-old UF criminology and sociology senior, said addressing poverty and food insecurity is also important in the fight for equality. She stood and spoke to the crowd in a colorful backpack that contrasted her dark “Dream Defenders” shirt.
“Black Lives Matter doesn’t end with the end of police brutality,” she said. “It does not start there, and it does not end there.”
The Black Lives Matter movement is more than just a hashtag, she said. It's her life. A wave of snaps followed.
Laurent also discussed how African Americans are underrepresented in UF’s faculty, student body and curriculum.
“The African American studies department is small,” she said. “My home is bigger, and I live in an apartment.”
The family of Jamee Johnson was present at the vigil. Jamee was 22 when he was shot and killed by officers of Jacksonville Police Department in December 2019 after being stopped for a seatbelt violation.
Jamee’s father, Harvey, spoke to the crowd through a megaphone. He grieved with his audience for the loss of his son over the $35 violation.
The speakers finished, and silence followed. The crowd stood still for eight minutes—one for each minute former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck.
The corner quickly quieted, until the sound of nearby traffic was all that was left.
Hands rested on neighboring slumped shoulders. The wet ground grew damper still, as rain mixed with tears. Friends embraced each other, holding tightly.
The stale humidity, smoky incense and fragrant candles mixed to make the air smell like an old, packed church house with failing air conditioning on an Easter Sunday.
Some stared into the small but bright flame of their candle. Some held a strong fist in the air, and others bowed their heads in prayer. One man held a tight grip on a rose high above his head for eight minutes.
Children sat by their parents’ feet and silently played with the grass between their fingers.
An organizer then called for the crowd to chant, “I believe that we will win.” Within minutes, the crowd drowned out the echoing car horns with claps, chants and cheers.
Ken Hunt, a 20-year-old Santa Fe general studies freshman, felt nervous to come to the vigil after seeing incidents of violence break out at similar events on the news and social media. Seeing the peaceful and respectful crowd made him feel happy to attend, he said.
Hunt said seeing everyone singing and dancing together in unity reminded him of why he was there—for the people.
After the chant, vigil organizers instructed attendees to walk toward the altar to leave flowers and candles beneath the names of those they came to honor. Attendees slowly approached the memorial to lay down their respective tokens of grief.
While rain got heavier, the line of people waiting to attend the altar got longer. It stretched under the Bob Brockman Gateway and split between the sidewalks on University Avenue and 13th Street. One by one, people approached to pay their respects.
By then, the sunlight was gone. But the crowd saw through the shadows with the help of two streetlamps and the collective light from hundreds of candles.
As the procession continued, the crowd sang “This Little Light of Mine,” “Lean on Me,” and “Stand by Me.” The rain continued, but the crowd stayed.
After the last person placed their flower, a vigil organizer thanked the crowd for coming before telling them: stand for black lives every day. In response, the crowd’s protruding fists and bellowing cries rose into the air and were carried into the night.
The crowd dwindled to about 40 people by 9:15 p.m.
Phanesia Pharel, a 20-year-old Barnard College urban studies student, reflected during the moment of silence on how she lives her life as a young black woman in America. She said she worries about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and becoming another victim among countless others.
“I have to come to terms with the fact that, right now, death is out of my control and any day can be my last day from this point on,” she said.
The vigil concluded with synchronous singing voices.
“Freedom, my friend, you do not walk alone,” the crowd harmonized. “We will walk with you and sing your spirit home.”
Footsteps receded from the shrine atop brick and concrete as people got ready to go home. Petals were left behind on the wet ground, and flames persisted against the rainfall.
This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of EMT Catherine Jean's name. The Alligator originally reported differently.
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