The line of close to 1,000 silent people stretched from Wilson Circle along the east side of Route 114 to Thomas Street. A silence so deep that only a baby gently fussing, and the distant whine of a lawnmower several streets away, could be heard.
The rally and march to support Black Lives Matter on Sunday afternoon brought out crowds of people of all ages, with hundreds of homemade signs, and chants and slogans filling the air. There were speeches addressing the crowd in front of the school and the Police Department headquarters — mostly by young people still in their teens.
It was the largest demonstration of any kind in memory, according to Town Information Officer Jack Thilberg. Police estimated the crowd at 800 people, but other estimates had it higher than that.
For four minutes in front of police headquarters, many people knelt in the silence, remembering the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, when a police officer knelt on his neck until he died. Abby Kotula and Emma Gallagher, who along with Henry Binder, organized the rally, began asking the crowd at the 4-minute mark to think about the death of Mr. Floyd, and the minutes his face was crushed against a Minneapolis street as he pleaded for his life.
There were calls not to forget, and to battle injustice and police brutality, as well as the silent vigil during a perfect summer day on Shelter Island.
The three students, after attending several Black Lives Matters rallies on the East End, decided to organize one in their hometown. They consulted with Superintendent of Schools Brian Doelger, Ed.D., Town Board members and Police Chief Jim Read, who all signed off on the event.
There was no violence, no counter demonstration, and the two-hour event ran right on schedule. Immediately after the crowds dispersed, Chief Read credited the young people who had organized and managed the event “for their messaging before it happened to be peaceful, and coming to us and Dr. Doleger about their plans.”
A plea for responsibility
The crowd gathered at the school’s entrance at 1 p.m. where tables were set up to register voters and information supplied to file 2020 U.S. Census forms. After Marvin Gaye’s civil rights anthem, “What’s going on?” floated over School Street from a speaker, Ms. Gallagher addressed the crowd, which stretched from the circle to the school’s parking lot, with many more people on the American Legion’s grounds facing the school.
She struck a couple of themes that were common from speakers, praising the local police department and the lack of diversity in the Shelter Island population. “We believe in acceptance,” Ms. Gallagher said. “We’re not here to disrespect anyone regardless of their beliefs or their jobs. We’re here to protest police brutality. America is calling for significant change.”
She asked everyone to take personal responsibility for the issues of brutality and racism, which have sent millions into the streets around the country and the world.
“We have to listen,” said Ms. Gallagher, who is the High School Class of 2020 valedictorian. “We have to call each other out. And call ourselves out.”
Faces in the crowd
Benjamin Dyett, a summer resident for 19 years, was one of the few people of color attending the rally. He said the young organizers’ energy “was a sign of real encouragement” to bring about social justice. “It feels different,” Mr. Dyett said, from past movements. He added that it’s important to know the history of Shelter Island, and that Sylvester Manor was a plantation with enslaved people. “And it’s important,” he said with a smile, “to know that I’m the president of the Board of Directors of Sylvester Manor.”
Islander Ceil Surerus held a sign reading: “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out for his mother,” referring to some of Mr. Floyd’s last words as he lay dying. Ms. Surerus said she “gets emotional” and tears well up when she thinks of Mr. Floyd’s final, agonizing moments.
Patty Quigley, who said she was the daughter of a police officer growing up in Nassau County, had come because of the young people’s call to action. “It’s time to do something about racism,” Ms. Quigley said.
Former Supervisor Jim Dougherty was present. He said “we accomplished a lot in the 1960s, but we can see there is a huge, unfinished agenda.”
Current Supervisor Gerry Siller was in the crowd, noting he also remembered civil rights protests from the 1960s when he was a high school student. “It’s important to bear witness,” Mr. Siller said.
Vanessa Parsons was next to a stroller holding her daughter, Hazel, 2. Ms. Parsons is due in August for the birth of her second child. “I want to stand with my community,” she said. “And say what needs to be said.” Asked if she’ll tell Hazel about the day, she said, “Of course. And this one that’s coming. It’s taken too long, and finally people are awakening.”
Speeches to the public
After the silence was broken in front of Police Department headquarters, and the student organizers rallied the crowds with chants of “I can’t breathe” — some of Mr. Floyd’s last words — Willie Jenkins, 37, of Bridgehampton, a member of Black Lives Matter of the East End, said that, as a black man, the turnout and enthusiasm by Islanders “is filling my heart.”
Mr. Jenkins said he knew little about Shelter Island — “except you’re our enemies in basketball” — and implored the crowd to understand that “just because you don’t see discrimination, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
Growing up in a black neighborhood, “I didn’t know it was not normal to be pulled from a car” by police officers for a minor traffic violation.
He’s been speaking at rallies for three weeks, he said, “and I’ve lost my voice.” Mr. Jenkins was cheered when he added, “We’ve been screaming for 400 years that, ‘This is not right.’ We know all lives matter. None of us are stupid.”
The student organizers, he said, “are a godsend to your community. They are wise beyond their years. They’re going to be on the right side of history.”
He’s been inspired by the biracial makeup of protests across the country, he said, and by the overwhelming majority of white people who showed up in the Center.
“Now I feel I’m not alone,” he said.
The most stirring speaker of the day was the last, after the crowd marched back to School Street. Aterahme Lawrence, known by her nickname, MeMe, told the gathering that she was a graduate of the Shelter Island Class of 2014, and a graduate of SUNY Fredonia. Her family moved to the Island when she was five, she said, and her experience at school was good and bad. She and her family experienced racism. She recalled that she was the only black student in her class and would “cry every day,” and often “hated to come to school.”
Ms. Lawrence acknowledged good teachers who helped her in school and is thankful for a good education, and in many ways, “I am very blessed to have grown up here … There were great times, but bad times,” she added, especially when “I spoke up and was shut down.”
It was difficult, she said, to feel “like I represented the whole black race, Standing before you today, I feel the same.”
Ms. Lawrence asked people to “educate yourselves about slogans.” That “de-fund the police” doesn’t mean abolishing police forces. “Black people aren’t against the police,” she said. But, what is important, is never forget that the fight is “against that old monster — racism.”
She finished by asking, “Who is missing here?”
Ms. Lawrence paused and said; “Who is missing here are the people you need to speak to. Someone in your life. Make them a citizen of the world, and not just here.”
Although the crowd had thinned when she finished speaking, Ms. Lawrence received the loudest ovation of the day.