A year ago today, the day after George Floyd was murdered, teenagers across the street stapled black block letters on yellow poster board to the guardrail along Huron Avenue. BLACK LIVES MATTER. That evening, I noticed a family and their dog taking a knee. Next evening, I joined them. As did a few others. Within a week there were a dozen of us, often more. Fresh signs littered the guardrail. Ever practical, I added: “Take a Knee. Nightly. 7:30 p.m.”
Some evenings brought a steady stream of honking horns. Occasionally, a passing driver stopped, bringing all traffic to a halt for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. After the timer chimed, participants spoke, if inclined. African-Americans applauded. On Juneteenth our modest vigil was a designated activity of Movement 4 Black Lives. Over seventy-five people took a knee on that stretch of grass. Our numerical zenith.
We knelt unstructured, leaderless. If Alex was there, he kept time. If not, the task fell to me. Or someone else took out their smartphone. We rose at the buzzer and disbursed. This was a solemn exercise, not social, though the simple act of being out of doors among others in the midst of the pandemic felt rebellious in its own right.
By July the tenor of take-a-knee changed. Counter-opinions manifested along the guardrail. Always under cover of darkness. “We Heart Police.” An American flag with a blue stripe. Followed by counter-counter opinions: someone scripted the names of Blacks killed by police on the flag. The number of kneelers shrunk. Car toots of support were punctuated by long blasts of dissent. When our number was few, a driver (invariably in a pick-up) would pull over and rant. Vitriol spewed at a quartet of gray-hairs from the safety of a metal carcass is pathetic.
One August morning we woke to find everything stapled to the guardrail gone. All messages, pro-police and pro-BLM, painted over flat grey.
By then, of course, taking a knee had become habit. When my alarm sounded three minutes before time, I dropped whatever I was doing and went to the rail. Half-a-dozen regulars, plus occasional drop-ins. Upon rising, we often chatted. Sometimes for longer than we knelt. I met new neighbors. Clarissa and Perron; Leon and Jayne. In the twilight, we shared our histories. They are the sole in-person acquaintances I made during the pandemic.
Fall came. Shorter days. We shifted to 6 p.m. The breeze blew cool. I’m lousy at mediation, but I forced myself, every night, to visualize Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. To invoke the pressure of why we were touching the ground. One Black driver stopped and chastised us. “This is not what we need; get off your knees and help.” Another pick-up driver’s diatribe planted the seed for my play, Sons of Liberty. Evenings grew rainy, often cold. None of us entertained the idea of stopping.
In early October, Peter became a regular, cementing a core of four. Peter, Leon, Jayne, and me. Peter walks at snail’s pace, thanks to severe rheumatism. His gait solidified our connection, as we flanked his crawl across the busy, darkening street. Fall turned to winter. The cold and rain and ice were often treacherous for Peter and Jayne. Leaving only Leon and me. How many nights would I think, “It’s cold,” or “It’s wet,” and wish to remain indoors. But knowing that Leon would venture forth pushed me out. It only takes a single other person to hold us to a higher task.
Mid-winter surprise: crisp; snow-filled nights induce profound thought. The earth and sky silent, shimmering grey. Flurries muffling the noise of scant traffic. Few braved the winter chill; the rising COVID. My meditations deepened beyond the particulars of George Floyd. To the eternal challenge: man’s inhumanity to man.
As spring emerged, Alexandra Shelton joined us, a local artist and longtime neighbor (our children went to grade school together). Fresh energy was welcome. Fresh creativity as well. Alexandra created a series inspired by the tumult of BLM. Her mother’s visits to the rail (she’s in her nineties!) inspired poetry.
A guy in a Porsche Boxer convertible stopped one night. Vanity plate. Jumped out and joined us. Has stopped several other times. A librarian from a few streets down. A mom with a pair of elementary age boys. We’re a hard group to define.
A few weeks ago, I told the regulars that I planned to stop on May 25, one year after George Floyd was murdered. I posted fresh signs to mark the anniversary. We enjoyed a boost in turnout, and afterward some cupcakes I made, with a flyer of police reforms instigated during the past year toothpicked into the icing. A tangible, if checkered set of accomplishments, none of which even remotely ascribable to our vigil.
As in any endeavor, the benefits I’ve received—enhanced meditation, creative flow, neighbor comradery—are more identifiable than any specific result our actions influenced. Yet, I’m convinced our nightly vigils have value. We cannot know who among the many drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians passing by reframed their idea of Black Lives Matter. To consider that, as Blacks have defined the barrel-bottom of our society for so long, only when their lives truly matter, will all lives matter. One mysterious beauty of life is that we are not supposed to know who and how we influence. Our task is simply to bear witness as the first step to acknowledging deeper truth.
Peter, Jayne, and Leon announced that they plan to continue on. Which makes me kinda doubt that I will stay full away.
Police Reforms Enacted In Response to George Floyd Murder
Partial list (Axios)
Ban tear gas
San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle
Ban choke holds
New York and Minnesota
Ban sleeper holds
Ban purchase of military equipment
Enhanced body camera use
Ban no-knock warrants
City of Lousiville
Revoke qualified immunity
Massachusetts (passed houses—not yet signed)
Reduce Police Budgets (Bloomberg)
Austin, New York, Seattle, Denver
Note: although some cities reduced police budgets
total police spending in the 50 largest US cities increased in 2020-2021
Progress is being made
We are far from defunding police
Over 180 Black people have been killed by police since George Floyd (Newsweek)