There is a tradition in some social justice work and peace action that when remembering those who have died in the struggle, their names are read out loud, and the participants respond “Present.” It is a ritual I have participated in a few times in my work over the years, acknowledging the loss of life in the pursuit of peace and justice. It is a way of remembering and honoring their lives.
Sunday morning, February 27, 2000, my friend Jane and I were in Brooklyn, sitting in metal folding chairs in the basement of a storefront church. We were in New York for the annual program meeting of the Council on Social Work Education and decided to attend the church our friend and founder of Pastors for Peace, Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr. pastored. He was also trained as a social worker. Lucius was African American, as were most of the people in the community and in the church. We were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. It was not unusual for Jane and I to be involved in cross-cultural activities including worship, but it was our first time to do so in New York City, Brooklyn, after taking the subway and walking blocks to get there. We had taken 21 students to NY and to work with Lucius in Harlem previously, and were involved in the Hispanic and African American communities in our home in Abilene, Texas, where we worked with our Hispanic and African American social work colleagues.
What made this different was a day earlier, February 26, 2000, all four officers responsible for the death of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, had been acquitted of all charges resulting from his death February 4, 1999. Fear, anger, and grief was evident throughout the city. There was a prayer vigil scheduled for the UN at 3 p.m. and a march scheduled that afternoon. It is not that I can recall all those specific details over 20 years later: I recorded them in the bulletin for the services that day–one that has remained in my keepsake box all these years. I found it a few days ago while making another attempt at the necessary cleaning out to simplify my life. I put it in the trash can, thinking “how long am I going to keep this?” Then I opened the trash can and took it back out. This was not the first time I had struggled with this decision about this little hand-typed, Xeroxed bulletin that carries such a deep meaning with me in my life as a social worker committed to social justice, equality, and peace.
At some point in the service, the names of all the people of color in New York City who had been killed by the police, while unarmed and NOT in the act of committing a crime were read out loud. After each name, the congregants would state “present” in unison. The names went on and on–I have no idea how many. Jane and I would look at each other at times, as if to silently ask “How many?” We had tears in our eyes as each name and each “present” was a sobering reminder that someone’s life had been cut short and that some mother, father, brother, sister, neighbor, many some others, grieved the loss. Some of the names were familiar, as they–like Amadou Diallo–were in the news often. Other names were probably unknown to anyone outside their community or family.
How many times must this scene play out before we can acknowledge that yes, we perceive things as fearful when they are not? We judge without sufficient facts and evidence?
I will be honest here, I have struggled with this post ever since I first started it. There are many times when I weigh carefully if I will “go there” for concern of what it might engender. I wanted to share this especially meaningful experience that has stayed with me for 20 years. Why is this still happening? How can we keep justifying it and explaining it away?