New Year’s Day march affirms value of life, reflects many concerns

About 60 people stepped off in a New Year's Day march organized by the NAACP of Martha's Vineyard. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Some people held signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” some held signs that said “All Lives Matter,” and three people, that included Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake, carried a large sign that said “Police Lives Matter.”

As a group of about 60 people gathered at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven in preparation for a march through downtown Vineyard Haven on New Year’s Day, Chief Blake, president of the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard, sponsor of the march, asked rhetorically, “Isn’t that a mixed message?”

Chief Blake answered his own question. “Absolutely not. We celebrate the fact that we’re all different. That’s a real clear message.”

The march was organized against the background of the controversy and protests surrounding the high profile deaths of two unarmed black men by police officers, one in Ferguson, Missouri, and the other on Staten Island, New York, and the decision of grand juries not to indict either officer.

Shortly after noon the marchers stepped off walking behind a Tisbury police cruiser. Several police officers were on hand to redirect traffic, and another cruiser followed the marchers. Under sunny skies the bundled up group walked up State Road, onto Main Street and ended at Union Street. The wind chill factor was 20 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

Chief Blake said he was pleased at the turnout on such a chilly day. He said the idea for the march came during a discussion at a recent NAACP meeting.

“We certainly don’t have our heads in the sand,” Chief Blake said. “The protests (elsewhere) have gotten ugly, I think the messages got skewed. We want to highlight that the silent majority of protestors is just that, it’s silent, but we want change. We want to see real progress.”

Chief Blake said he was surprised when a grand jury did not indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo for manslaughter in the case of Eric Garner who police arrested for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner. The grand jury evidence included a widely circulated video of Officer Pantaleo and several other police officers arresting Mr. Garner.

“I actually thought they would come down with an indictment of manslaughter,” Chief Blake said. “Just looking at it, I thought for sure they would. The fact that he used a choke hold and the guy ended up dying, I figured they would at least let it go to trial.”

In Ferguson, police officer Darren Wilson scuffled with, and then fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old robbery suspect. A grand jury decided not to indict the police officer. Both cases sparked massive protests across the nation under the rallying cry, “black lives matter.”

Asked if the Ferguson police officer should have been indicted, Chief Blake said it was the grand jury’s job to make that decision.

“The questions are being raised, what was the relationship like between the law enforcement community and the minority community in that city that made this spark so out of control so fast,” Chief Blake said. “Hopefully, our relationships between law enforcement and the community here, that if something like that happens, we would put the brakes on it. I use the word legitimacy. People follow the law because they believe its legitimate. They trust in their police department and their government because they believe it’s legitimate. If they don’t believe that, then you’re going to have what you have in Ferguson.”

Tensions in New York City and elsewhere escalated on December 20, when a man with a history of mental illness and gun crimes ambushed and killed two New York City police officers sitting in a cruiser. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who later took his own life, cited the deaths of Mr. Garner and Mr. Brown in social media messages prior to the shootings, as a motive for his actions.

Chief Blake said the deaths of the two officers spurred him to help organize the march. On Friday, Chief Blake helped carry a banner that said, “Police lives matter.”

As she waited to step off at the head of the march Thursday, NAACP vice president Carrie Tankard of Oak Bluffs said she would march in solidarity with protestors across the nation.

“Ours is going to be smooth, quiet, and peaceful,” Ms. Tankard said. “It has happened so much, I’m just tired of it. Like Dr. King said, this is what happens when you feel as though you’re not being heard. You protest. What else can you do.”

The marchers represented a diverse group, and included people from several Island towns, permanent, as well as seasonal residents, children, older residents who marched the route with the help of canes, and most every age in between.

“It’s such great diversity here,” said Bill Adams, a longtime seasonal resident of Edgartown who will move to the Island permanently soon. “It’s not a bunch of crazy people, it’s a bunch of concerned people, out to say somebody’s got to pay attention.”

I think it’s great that it’s coming from the chief of police and the NAACP together, because the solution is together,” said Peter Palches of Oak Bluffs.

Like many of the marchers, Ardelia Stewart, a seasonal resident of Vineyard Haven, has had experiences which shaped her view of community relationships with police officers, and prompted her to turn out for Thursday’s march. While she said she has never experienced harassment on Martha’s Vineyard, a long ago incident near her Pennsylvania home still bothers her.

“I can remember my husband got promoted to vice-president of an international pharmaceutical company,” Ms. Stewart, an African American, said. “In celebration, we bought a new car. We went up (to Princeton University) to take our son out to dinner, and as we’re going up the highway, we’re pulled over. For no reason, the policeman had the nerve to ask us, ‘What do you do for a living?’ It had nothing to do with the car being pulled over. He said, ‘I just wanted to know what you did to afford a car like this.’ It left a sour taste in your mouth. No matter how insignificant some might think it is, I still remember it.”

She said she was glad to see people marching, with the support and cooperation of local police officers. “When you look at the diversity on this Island, you understand what it means, all lives do matter. To come out on a cold day like today, layered, hardly able to move, it’s great. Police policy, law enforcement policy has to change. It just cannot go on. This thing that racism is over, or it’s being handled, no it’s not. Until we change attitudes in the home, where it starts, nothing will change, it will just be bubbling to the surface every once in a while. I’m no less than anybody else, and my children aren’t, and we’ve all been subject to some harassment. It’s not fair. We’re taxpayers, we’re citizens. But I felt good about coming out here.”