By the time they had been holding court on stage for nearly an hour, my blood was boiling.
I was being held hostage, in broad daylight, in a public park in Dunedin, Florida.
The gathering had been promoted on Facebook as a “Peaceful Solidarity Candle Light Vigil.” The image said “Together we rise,” with a row of fists in all colors.
But the result was a display of pure white privilege. Look at us white people, gathering without violence or rioting. Look at how nicely white people can talk about black people. See how we can get together without looting any local stores.
The organizer was white. The bagpiper who played “Amazing Grace” was white. The minister was white. The mayor and all the other speakers were white. With the exception of the mayor, they were also all male. They talked about how wonderful it was to have a peaceful gathering, and they thanked and congratulated themselves and the participants for coming.
The hundreds of people in the crowd were there in good faith. They didn’t know they were going to be used to promote this message. There were people there of all ages, with a handful of black participants who probably represented Dunedin’s actual numbers, about 4% black.
Today, it’s apparent from their Facebook posts that most of them are completely unaware of what happened with their complicity.
I sat in the middle of the crowd with three friends, completely trapped. If I stayed, I was one more white person who appeared to support the systemic racism that the speakers had no idea they were portraying. If I walked out in disgust, I wasn’t supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
It was a lose-lose situation. My friends and I were literally squirming in our seats.
Up on stage, the organizer began to quote Dr. Martin Luther King for the second or third time. Finally, I lost it.
When he paused to take a breath, I shouted, loudly enough to be heard by all, “STOP QUOTING BLACK PEOPLE AND LET THEM SPEAK!”
On stage, the man shut up, stunned. There was a moment of collective shock, and then the crowd cheered.
What happened next? When he scanned the crowd for black faces, it became evident that he had not booked a single black speaker. His eyes fell on a black woman with a sign that said “Let my son live.” “Hey, you, with that sign, come up here and speak,” he called out to her.
I wanted to cry. This is not how allies work. We do not drag unsuspecting black people on stage to be the token representative of the entire movement. We do not suddenly demand that they jump in front of a microphone to validate us.
She did a great job, speaking briefly about her experiences and fears as the mother of a black teenager. Judging from the applause and cheers, the crowd appreciated her more than any of the previous white speakers.
After she spoke, the organizer announced that he didn’t want the event to go on for too long, so he was going to end the vigil. He later followed up on the Facebook event page, writing “I hope I did the cause justice, and If I even only inspired one person as a call to action, then that makes it worth my time. I am far from done.”
The crowd milled around a bit, unsure if we should just go home. Then something magical happened. Alexis Glasgow took the stage, and she saved the day.
Alexis is young, black, and female. Hers is the voice we need to hear.
Three days earlier, Alexis and two other women had organized a large sit-down protest at Coachman Park in neighboring Clearwater. Raised in Clearwater and attending American University in Washington DC, she has a young, fearless black voice, and she is using her words to fight for justice. Alexis is the kind of leader that allies like myself need. She can help us understand the work that needs to be done.
Alexis brought us back to the reason why we attended the vigil. She talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, about the injustice that is all around us. She gave us hope that there will be change and that it will be led by the black voices we have been silencing for 400 years.
If you are an ally, your job is to listen. Not to white people speaking on behalf of black people, but to black people speaking up for themselves. One of the signs I’ve seen at protests is “Silence = Violence.” Allowing the white speakers to go on for an hour last night was an act of oppression.
It is not up to us to speak right now. As allies, we have the resources to produce events, to rally our white friends, but the speakers MUST BE BLACK. The leaders MUST BE BLACK. If you don’t have black friends, then call on people who are not your personal friends. Ask a black business owner or a black minister if they will speak. Ask someone from a neighboring community to speak.
There are many black people who work in Dunedin and cannot afford to live here. Ask them to speak.
If I ever attend another Black Lives Matter event that has been co-opted by white people, I will no longer sit quietly, listening. Silence = Violence. LET THEM SPEAK.