WHITMAN — Out of hate and brutality has come a glimmer of hope.
Whitman resident Morgan Kerins and Shannon Murphy of Hanson organized a Resisting Racism peaceful protest at vigil Sunday afternoon.
An estimated 300 people from Whitman and surrounding communities gathered at Memorial Field to hear speakers: former Brockton pastor Dave Capozzi and Khadia and Ben, both African-American residents — speak against systemic racism and, in the case of two, their own personal experiences.
“Peace does not exist when there is injustice,” Capozzi said. “Even though we are all standing together, we are not at peace.”
Dorchester native Khadia spoke of her experience growing up in Whitman after her family moved here when she was in the third grade.
“Coming here, I was optimistic about everything,” she said, urging residents to make Whitman a community where everyone feels they belong. “The thing that got me down the most … I’m sure a lot of you have seen it, [is] the Confederate flags in our schools and all around our town. … Every time I see that, I just feel like I don’t belong here, like I’m not wanted here and that’s not right.”
“I stand with you!” a woman in the crowd shouted. “We’re with you!” and “You belong here!” others yelled out.
Through tears, Khadia described daily comments she heard in school because of her race and said that administrators took no action.
“A lot of people will see this as kids just being jerks, kids just being bullies,” she said. “But those kids grow into adults with real money and real power … into the cops that stop us because we look suspicious because of our color. … into the government officials that won’t pass bills against discrimination or police brutality.”
Ben, a resident of Hanson, also recalled the sense of isolation he felt as the only person of color in his class.
“It made it really hard to know who really was my friend,” he said about classmates who would use racial slurs and say they were “just kidding.”
“We can’t stay silent,” he said about speaking up against racism. “Even when it’s uncomfortable saying it to people you are friends with, saying it to family members. … If we want real change, we can’t let this die out.”
While the organizers, and most of the crowd was white, like 97-percent of Whitman’s population, Murphy called the event an opportunity for people to educate themselves as they support African-Americans.
“Just because we’re predominantly white doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a voice to speak and talk about this,” Murphy said, adding she was eager to work with more than a dozen teenagers in town who wanted to take action.
First they put up anti-racism posters around town, but when they were removed, they planned the protest.
“I was frustrated,” Kerins said, noting she expected some discussion of the poster disappearance, but there was no mention of it. “This is part of the reason it’s so important to do it in a place like this. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this before, which is why we’ve gotten so many mixed responses.”
Murphy said the removal of the posters moved her to action.
“This is not about one man, it is about resisting racism on all levels,” she later told the crowd. “It is about equality and ending racially motivated police violence. It is about standing in solidarity and fighting injustices. It is about humanity.”
People attending had many reasons for showing up.
“I’m here because I’m done being silent,” said a young Whitman woman who gave her name as Lex. “I’m done being part of a complicit system, where I am allowed to go out and I’m OK being with a cop.”
She contrasted that to how African-Americans worry for their lives in the same situations.
“I’m tired of being in a system like that,” she said.
“I just wanted to show up to make sure we have enough support in this town,” said Whitman resident Marshal Ottina, who was volunteering at a voter registration table. “Black lives matter to me and my family and we wanted to show that support today.”
After the speakers, participants circled the field and walked to Whitman Park where they marched, chanting against racism through half the park before returning to Memorial Field for a vigil.
“It’s a difficult time and it’s uncomfortable for people,” said WHRHS counselor Dom Amado of Hanson. “I think the biggest [outcome has been] the unity, the togetherness. People working together for a common goal.”
He said people have to come together and use their power for good.
“If it was someone near and dear to you, obviously, it would matter — it would hit close to home — so I think that’s the kind of mentality that we have to take,” Amado said. “It’s a human race issue.”
Brockton resident Chantelle Boateng, 17, was leading marchers in chants from the sidewalk along Park Avenue.
“It’s bringing people together,” she said. “I think it’s going to change. They’re helping and I really appreciate them, too.”
“I think this moment is different from any other moment,” said Richarson Fong, who moved to Whitman from Weymouth three years ago. “If you look at the crowd, at the ethnicities, it’s mixed up — it’s America.”
Fong said that, while “we love the police officers” because they secure their communities, it is important to recognize there are some bad apples.
Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ activist Dominique, of Easton concluded the speakers’ program before the vigil.
“I am sick and tired of going out everyday and being scared when I pass a police car,” she said before reading a list of some of the names of people killed by police in recent years.
Participants remained kneeling and silent for eight minutes and 45 seconds — the length of time Minneapolis, Minn., police officer Derek Chauvin allegedly kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd.
“This is pretty impressive for Whitman,” Selectman Justin Evans said of the event as residents filled Memorial Field. “It’s a matter of just looking at ourselves. It’s a lot of reflection, a lot of listening.”
Evans said he plans on reviewing state and local use of force policies to determine if they perhaps need updating.
“It’s sobering to hear some of these things,” Town Administrator Frank Lynam said. “To hear people still experiencing that today is really heartbreaking. It’s crazy. It’s absolutely crazy.”