Hundreds attended a memorial for George Floyd and other black lives who have suffered under police brutality and oppressive racism in Southampton Village on June 4, under sweltering heat and COVID-19 preparations.
The mood was somber and commemorative as Dr. Richard ‘Junie’ Wingfield opened the ceremonies with a Maya Angelou quote.
Organized by leaders in the black community with the assistance of Mayor Jesse Warren for permitting, the event was then opened officially by the day’s MC, Reverend Tisha Williams. Hosting the event with grace and the callback Baptist spirit, Reverend Williams had a personal connection to recent racial crimes in the country, as her family was close with Ahmaud Arbery who was gunned down in the Brunswick-area by citizens while jogging.
Shinnecock singers, the Young Bloods, opened with the AIM song, a Native American intertribal song that is associated with the American Indian Movement, asking everyone to stand.
Mayor Jesse Warren echoed the solemn mood of the day, thanking organizers and committing to “fight for racial and social justice” and “bring about institutional and systemic change.”
Continuing the religious-focused ceremony, Reverend Michael Smith of the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church spoke of his choir singing songs to “heal our land” and the importance of honoring those who met untimely deaths.
The crowd’s ages ranged, with participants holdings signs saying “Say their Name” or sitting in beach chairs emblazed with “Black Lives Matter.” Southampton Arts Center asked people to share their messages of hope and unity on multi-colored papers while Shinnecock lawyer Tela Troge and New York State Senate Democratic hopeful Skyler Johnson handed out absentee ballots and voter registration. Troge has held other voter registration initiatives in the town and said that this response was far greater, with people asking for paperwork for their family members as well.
Local religious leaders continued their messages of love and peace, while also advocating for “soul work,” as Reverend Sarah Bigwood of the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton called it. Reverend Bigwood was a former Minneapolis resident before moving to Southampton and acknowledged the city’s history with racism, saying that the time for white people to change their hearts is now.
Lance Gumbs, Vice Chairman of the Shinnecock Nation Tribal Council, shared his own stories as a victim of racism in the Southampton Public School system, as well as at the hands of local police. Saying that “for 400 years we’ve known racism as the indigenous people of this land.” He called on attendees to do more than talk, saying that if you witness racism and don’t stop it, you are just as guilty as the perpetrators.
Local Andrina Smith focused her attention on racism and the racist systems on the East End, telling attendees to speak up at their exclusive beach and country clubs on the East End, where the only people of color are the staff. “This is a fight for our humanity,” she said.
Dr. Wingfield followed, speaking directly to his white brothers and sisters, imploring them to advocate for change today. “If not now, when? If not me, who?” he said in a powerful speech that ended with a poem honoring Heather Heyer, the white ally who was killed for protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
The ongoing pandemic was present – with attendees wearing masks and attempting to socially distance where possibly. Gallons of New York State hand sanitizer were available for attendees, and Reverend Williams held a minute of silence for the 100,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19.
Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman was in attendance, as well as Village Trustee Mark Parash. The former Mayor Mark Epley and his family were also in attendance. Bridgehampton protest organizer Willie Jenkins also turned out to support the cause.