What pandemic?

News reports about concerns that mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd would reignite the coronavirus pandemic didn’t deter the hundreds who arrived in downtown Durham late Thursday for a youth-led candlelight vigil.

“You’re fucked if you do. You’re fucked if you don’t,” Philip Duhart, a 38-year-old Duke employee who stood among those gathered near Major the Bull in Corcoran Square. “You’re damned if you do. You’re damned if you don’t,” he added with a shrug.

Durham residents began streaming into downtown at the end of a nationally televised memorial service for Floyd, the 56-year-old man who died after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Aissa Dearing, an 18-year-old Howard University student who graduated from the Josephine Dobbs Clement Early College High School on N.C. Central’s campus, was one of the organizers of the vigil.

A flyer posted on Facebook stated that the candlelight vigil was “for youth, by youth,” along with the hashtag, #OccupyBlackWallStreet.

Dearing and another organizer, Elijah King, said the purpose was “to stand in solidarity with the resilient community of Minneapolis.”

“Durham has a moral obligation to listen, learn from, uplift, and protect its historically black community,” the flyer read.

Dearing was mindful of the pandemic threat. She asked the swelling crowd to observe near-impossible safe-distancing practices. She also reminded everyone to wear masks and said bottles of hand sanitizer and snacks were available.

Public health issues notwithstanding, Dearing said the vigil served as an outlet and a way to honor Floyd. She spoke of the need to end the systemic racism that fosters white supremacy in America.

“Durham is not immune to injustice,” said Dearing, who asked the vigil attendees to “scream ‘black lives matter’” to address gun violence in the city, for the disproportionate number of public school students who receive “in- and out-of-school suspension,” on behalf public housing residents have been poisoned, in support of the impoverished and immigrants in the community who are undocumented, and living daily with fears of being arrested and deported.

It’s time, she said, to “stop the oppression of blackness” and “deconstruct the status quo.” 

The vigil was not unlike the celebratory tone of a repast after an African American funeral. A giant puppet with flowing braids danced in the middle of Corcoran Square, accompanied by a battery of drummers. Musician Ayoni Jeffries strummed her guitar and sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” There were parents with babies, elementary-age kids, and a cross-section of the city’s adult population.

There were at least a dozen people in orange vests assisting with the vigil, legal observers, and health care workers wearing pink.

Leryann Whitehall, a 19-year-old native of Barbados who moved to Durham six years ago, grew up without her father. After witnessing what happened to Floyd, and countless others at the hands of the police, she worries about the next generation of Black men who are coming of age—including her young nephew.

“I’m trying to make sure he has a future to look forward to,” she said. 

Whitehall was skeptical about Floyd’s death signaling a transformative change in the country.

“It all stems from white supremacy,” she said. “Until you change the notions of white privilege, nothing will change.”

Sally Hicks, who is white, edits a divinity magazine at Duke University, and lives near downtown, said paying tribute to Floyd was the least she could do. She recalled filmmaker Michael Moore’s words when he spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. in 2017.

“Michael Moore said if you live in a progressive area, you can’t rest on your laurels,” said Hicks. “I think these are the places where we’re starting to make a difference with some of the systemic issues.”

Kilean Kennedy, 47, attended the vigil with his wife, Stacy.

“It almost felt unavoidable. I had to do something,” Kennedy said. “As a white male, middle-aged—a lot of times I try not to inject myself or shout my opinion. And yet, it’s important, and I want to make sure that I’m recognizing in some way the horrible, systemic racism that’s been practiced in this country for years.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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