A “Candlelight Vigil for Unity” was held on the Allen County Courthouse Green on Wednesday night, in an effort to show solidarity with victims of hate and racism over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Charlottesville was the center of white nationalist protests over the weekend, which turned violent on Saturday and resulted in deaths of three individuals: counter-protester Heather Heyer, and Virginia State Police officers H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates. These events have reverberated throughout the week, with President Donald Trump’s unpopular, defiant position that “many sides” were at fault for the violence.
Wednesday’s gathering on the courthouse green brought hundreds of Northeast Indiana residents to light candles and sing songs, with many holding signs emphasizing peace, love and support.
From Community activists to religious leaders, speakers presented for more than an hour calling for peace and unity among the community. Fort Wayne reverend Bill McGill began by saying that even though Dr. Martin Luther King is no longer with us, citizens must make sure the spirit of his words lives on.
“We are here today because an evil man may have silenced Heather’s voice, but we will use her memory to challenge people to make equality their primary choice,” McGill said.
He also insisted citizens continue to work toward “a more perfect union.”
“Our nation’s union has yet to be perfected, so we must work to ensure that all Americans have their rights legally protected,” he said. “So we have to promote dialogue, which ensures that our views, even when disagreed with, are respected.”
Courtney Tritch followed McGill. Tritch is running as a Democrat for Indiana’s third congressional district -- a seat currently occupied by Jim Banks -- in 2018. She recalled a time she visited the site of a concentration camp in Germany, which forced her to ask the question: how did they get here?
“That was the end, that wasn’t the beginning,” said Tritch. “In the beginning, there was anger, and there was fear, and there was rhetoric about white supremacy that went unchecked and was condoned by leadership and was fueled by the general public that was too scared to stand up.”
Shirley Hardrix knows the dangers of white supremacy; her son Samuel was murdered by a self-proclaimed white supremacist last August. She says the last year has been really difficult for her family and friends, and the rhetoric at the national level hasn’t helped matters.
“My son did not deserve to be butchered the way he was, but that individual chose to do that. And his reward was a patch,” said Hardrix. “This is what hate groups do: they commit a crime of hate, then they get a reward for it.”
She insists the United States is headed down a dangerous path if citizens don’t tackle forces of hate head-on, and do it now.
“It’s going to take everybody to stand up and fight this,” said Hardrix. “Otherwise, America is going to remain divided, and America is going to fall. And it’s going to fall hard.”
Hardrix wasn’t alone. Lakysha Gardner’s nine-year-old son Jason was the victim of an alleged hate crime in New Haven in June. He was allegedly lured to a creek and beaten while racial slurs were thrown around, an experience Gardner said made Jason afraid to go outside.
“All we’re asking you guys for at this point is love,” Gardner said. Her two sons sent her with a message for vigil attendees: it’s already okay, a sentiment she shared with adversarial forces.
“To those people who have so much hatred in them: to even you, it’s going to be okay. But it’s time to break the cycle,” she said.
Allen County councilwoman Sharon Tucker also spoke. She expressed disappointment in her local government colleagues for not coming out, and said she almost didn’t herself because of the burnout of attending so many rallies with such little change.
“But then I listened to my own words: silence speaks loud. It has volume,” Tucker said. “So I couldn’t be silent. I had to be here.”
Tucker gave those in attendance three things they can do after the vigil to work toward change, including staying active in local government and creating a plan for where to go from here. But she emphasized the need for everyone to have “the race conversation.”
“You don’t even have to argue. You don’t even have to scream. And guess what? You do not have to agree," she said. "But you have to have the conversation in order for change to happen, otherwise it gets swept under the rug and gives the opportunity for one individual to raise it back up.”
Brandon Blumenhurst is a recent graduate of Homestead and will be attending IPFW in the fall. As a member of the LGBT+ community, he used the vigil to promote a change he wants to see in the Hoosier State.
“I wonder why we, as a community of love, have not pressured our state legislature into developing and passing legislation for those who commit hate crimes against not only members of the LGBT+ community, but members of other persecuted groups, as well,” he asked.
Blumenhurst was correct; Indiana is one of five states to not have hate crimes laws. But earlier this week, House Speaker Brian Bosma and Governor Eric Holcomb have expressed interest in changing this during the 2018 legislative session.
Throughout the remainder of the evening, Anthony Cross and Jane Young shared poems, and Amanda Arnold led the attendees in a rendition of The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child (Things Are Gonna Get Easier).”
Councilwoman Tucker led a moment of silence for Heather Heyer and other victims of racially-charged violence, but had a message for everyone in attendance before it took place:
“I encourage you to let this moment be the last time your voice is silenced,” Tucker said. “Speak loud, speak bold, and do what Jesus told Joshua: be strong and courageous, because he is strong and he is with us.”
“And guess what? This is something we can do,” she said.