Say Their Names: “Present” in Brooklyn February 27, 2000

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?

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8 Responses to Say Their Names: “Present” in Brooklyn February 27, 2000

  1. peggyjoan42 says:

    Amen. An enlightening and never to be forgotten part of lives lost in vain. I too would have cried for these people in that church. Sometimes things just must stay in that box and be saved so we will never forget the injustice. This post touched my heart and thank you for sharing your memories.

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  2. LindaRe says:

    Thank you for sharing. The summer of 2020 has been one of saddness for many reasons. The lack of understanding and compassion for the Black Lives Matter movement makes me feel like we are going backward.

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    • Suzassippi says:

      Thank you, LindaRe. I appreciate your response and naming the issue out loud. I have been reminded of Lucius so many times of late. He was a kind man from whom I learned much–Jane and I talk about “channeling Lucius” when something is difficult and we say as he did, “Thank you for lifting that up for us.” He would go on to say he disagreed, and explain why. And he would say we should name the foxes guarding the henhouse.

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  3. Beth says:

    Choosing to walk in a pathway of peacefulness and understanding is how God intends us to live. Not with hatred and violence, but with love.

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  4. janebye says:

    Oh, my gosh, this made me cry tonight. I am distraught over so many things and I remember crying in that church that day, thinking of all the injustices that were done toward people of color and how I felt complicit just by having white skin. It made such an impression on me. I still have the bulletin too and I had written directions about which trains to take to get to the church. I miss Lucius and his wisdom at times like these. I feel like there are so many things we took from him that still sustain us.

    IIt also reminds me of the time I went to a big protest at the School of the Americas at Ft. Banning and we held signs with names of people who had been killed in Central America. In that instance, we said “presente!” It went on forever. So many dead.

    Thanks for writing this post. It does give me hope that there are enough of us still striving.

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    • Suzassippi says:

      Thank you, Jane. I am still anguished, and yet, so glad to have met Lucius through you and Pastors for Peace, and all those who passed through our lives as a result. You know that we started the Lucius Walker Social Justice Award in his memory. While I was heartened to see recently that they still have the award, I was saddened that they removed the name of Lucius Walker and just call it a social justice award. I suppose it is the way things go now, that we acknowledge a thing when we do not even know what it is, or why we acknowledge it. Do you think that means they all know who Dxxxx Txxxxxxx or Dxx Cxxxxx are and why they get that award?

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      • janebye says:

        Oh, I hate it that they took his name off the award!! Dang it. Maybe they do pass down stories of the other two but it wouldn’t have been hard to have some info on Lucius as well. 😦 I do have fond memories of many of those we met through Pastors for Peace, even those whose names I can’t remember any more. 🙂 We had some adventures!

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