Updated June 1
Scores of people gathered in Dennis Alley Park (also known as Waban Park) Sunday morning in condemnation of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer.
That officer, Derek Chauvin, according to the Star Tribune, has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after video showed him pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd, handcuffed and on the ground, said he couldn’t breathe. In contrast with riotous protests across the country, those gathered in Oak Bluffs exercised peaceful criticism of racial injustice dealt not only to Floyd, but as many speakers noted, to countless others in systemic fashion.
Bullhorn in hand, Oak Bluffs resident Ebony Goldwire broke down recalling a segment of video she watched of Floyd’s killing.
“I have actually not been able to watch George Floyd’s murder in its entirety,” Goldwire said. “I have not been able to stomach it. I’ve only been able to watch clips. And it was Thursday morning [when] I was finally able to see the clip when he cried out for his mother. And in that moment I saw my son, and I promised myself that would not be his reality.”
Angella Henry, whose son Danroy Henry was shot by a police officer in Pleasantville, N.Y., in 2010, said, “Nothing has changed” since then.
“Our son died on the street. George Floyd died on the street. You cannot go back to your house today the same way that you came here,” Henry said. “You need to go back with the desire, the fire, to create change. Vote. Bring somebody to vote. Bring somebody to register to vote. Do something other than being here today. This is just a start. A line has been drawn in the sand. What side are you on?”
Oak Bluffs resident Eric Turner told The Times he came to the rally because he was “just tired of this whole situation … it’s a tragedy what happened to George Floyd. That’s why I’m here.”
Turner went on to say, “I like the idea that this is a peaceful demonstration. This is a peaceful protest. So I’m all in favor of that. I don’t advocate violence, but something’s got to be done. It’s a sad situation.”
Rally organizer Kiely Rigali told The Times she was pleased with the turnout at the rally: “I was really happy that the community came out and that people were able to have the platform to tell their stories. We have an amazing community of diversity and activism.”
After Angella Henry spoke, Rigali said another mother, who chose not to address the crowd, told her she’d lost a son to unjustified police force.
“Two moms,” Rigali said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Oak Bluffs planning board chair Ewell Hopkins expressed dismay at the rally. On a sidewalk across Seaview Avenue from the park, Hopkins told the Times the rally was “well-meaning” but in violation of Gov. Charlie Baker’s prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people. He described the event as orchestrated through “blatant white privilege.” Hopkins later told The Times, “We all found out, us elected officials, last night.” Hopkins argued public health was put at risk.
“I have no criticism of the people who attended,” he said and added he felt they assumed town officials were aware of the event. Parks and recreation chair Amy Billings and Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake only learned about the rally last night, according to Hopkins.
“I was disturbed to hear my police chief had not even been contacted,” Hopkins said. “We’re working our butts off to keep people safe in the town of Oak Bluffs,” he said, but he argued the event flew in the face of that work because, among other things, there was no public health plan for it.
“I don’t think a black person would have done something like this — so unorganized,” he said.
He went on to say had it been set up by an organization like the NAACP, proper steps would have been taken.
Hopkins pointed out some members of the Douglas family had properly sought permits for a different sort of rally in Vineyard Haven, earlier during the pandemic. Social media criticism mostly upended that effort, he said, and while he did not agree with the philosophy behind that gathering, he respected the effort to secure a permit for it. Compared with Sunday’s rally, he said, “There’s a hypocrisy there I struggle with. It’s not about permission. It’s about keeping people safe.”
Rigali, a Vineyard public school teacher who’s in her fifth year on Vineyard, said she selected the park because there have been “other protests and assemblies in the field,” and because it had a lot of space for social distancing. She said she also thought Oak Bluffs was appropriate because of its “amazing, deep-rooted black culture.”
Rigali went on to say, “I felt that it’s our right to assemble. We have the right to assemble.”
The event, she said, came together swiftly. “I do not want to disrespect or offend anybody by not including them in this,” she said. It was “organized in less than 24 hours. Sometimes there is an urgency of now.”
Rigali later amended the turnaround time to 40 hours.
She noted everyone was wearing masks.
Rigali said she spoke with the Oak Bluffs Police prior to the event, and invited them to stand with others at the rally.
She said she conveyed to the department it was going to be a peaceful assembly, and COVID-19 safety measures would be undertaken.
Chief Blake confirmed on Monday he wasn’t notified of the rally, and learned of it through The Times. He also confirmed his department met with the organizer ahead of the rally, and discussed proper social distancing and use of masks. Chief Blake said essentially there were two truths at play. He acknowledged Hopkins’ point about the governor’s order, and he also pointed out folks have a right to peacefully assemble. “How do you walk that high wire?” he asked.
He answered his own question by saying, “I’m certainly not going to send police officers to any protest as long as it’s peaceful.”
Blake said while a cruiser and an unmarked police vehicle motored past the park a few times to ensure all was well, he dispatched no officers out amid those gathered.
“They were doing the right thing,” he said about their social distancing and mask usage.
“People in these times need to be able to express themselves,” he said. He emphasized, unlike hooliganism that marked the tail end of protests in Boston Sunday night, where a Boston Police cruiser was torched and several officers were injured, Waban Park was a peaceful event start to finish.
Hopkins produced a screenshot of an email response from Chief Blake to Billings and Oak Bluffs selectmen chair Brian Packish that read, “Amy, What protest? I’m not aware of what you are talking about.”
The email is dated Saturday, May 30.
In a response email, Packish endorsed the gathering. “I think the right to peaceful protest is covered,” he wrote, “but some level of assistance might be warranted. I’d leave it to Chief to cover it. These murders have to stop, and if people can peacefully gather to grieve and expand awareness, I’m all for it.”
Speaking of George Floyd’s death, Blake described what he’d seen in video footage as “pure malice.” Such an act, he said “blatantly violates the trust” law enforcement works hard to earn with the public.
He said he appreciated his fellow chiefs’ unity in their condemnation of the incident, and expects the other Minneapolis police officers involved will be charged. He was right. Later former Minneapolis Police officers Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane “were each charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder while committing a felony, and with aiding and abetting second-degree murder manslaughter with culpable negligence,” the Star Tribune reported.
“Resisting death is not resisting arrest,” he said.
Updated with comments from Chief Blake. –Ed.