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'We Can't Be Held Down': Vigil Remembers, Celebrates Black Life

  

Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict Tuesday for the murder of George Floyd was a small step toward progress, but organizers say the work to unravel systemic racism and police brutality is just beginning. 

Wednesday evening, Pensacola Dream Defenders had a Vigil for Black Lives at Seville Square. Dozens came to the park to hear speakers and look back on the past year of protests sparked by Floyd's death. 

“The Dream Defenders took the lead making sure there was a grieving space, a safe space,” said Hale Morrissette, North Florida organizer for Dream Defenders. 

Dream Defenders is planning a vigil for each chapter in Florida. Pensacola had one of the first. 

“This isn’t the end,” she said. “We wanted a safe space where people could be in comradery. It felt like home. George Floyd was the reason they came out (to protest last year). It’s not closure but it is closure at the same time.” 

In Pensacola, the Graffiti Bridge on 17th Avenue was the home of a weeks-long protest where hundreds gathered to protest the death of George Floyd, Pensacola’s Tymar Crawford and countless other Black lives who were lost at the hands of police. And nearly one year later, people came together again, but with a shift in tone. 

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Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
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Dream Defenders literature at the Vigil for Black Lives.

“So many things transpired since then,” said Jamil Davis, lead Florida organizer for Black Voters Matter. “HB1 (the Florida anti-riot bill) was signed into law Monday, Tuesday, Derek Chauvin was convicted on all three charges, also at the same time My‘Khia Bryant was gunned down by police. It’s a lot.  (This) is a vigil for the Black lives we lost, but also celebrating Black life. We can’t be held down; we won’t be held down.” 

Karoline Nova, a freshman at UWF, said she was anxious as Chauvin's verdict was read. Her initial reaction to the three guilty verdicts was excitement. 

“I was jumping around,” she said. “This is the first step to get justice. It’s not justice yet because there’s a lot of … like My’Khia Bryant who just moments before the verdict was killed by a police officer. This is just the first step for justice for the Black community.” 

“For every Derek Chauvin that gets put in jail, there are thousands more (police officers) out on the streets still terrorizing Black and brown people, still terrorizing working-class people and oppressed people,” added Devin Cole. 

Teris Broughton, an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor, noted that whatever celebration there is with the Chauvin verdict, it didn’t come without the decades-plus of work from social justice activists. 

“Let’s be clear it is on the backs of those who have been doing the work that this day is so momentous,” she said. “This occasion is because of those who have worked in the community, those who have lived in the past without seeing this type of equity and this type of acknowledgment that Black lives not only matter but they are essential to the American fabric.” 

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Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
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Hale Morrissette, North Florida organizer for Dream Defenders.

After years of Black Lives Matter protests around the country and countless names that became hashtags, it was the death of Floyd that became a wake-up call for some. Austin Tate said she watched the verdict with her grandpa who “doesn’t see the larger picture” around the movement. 

“Part of me is still worried people will see the outcome of the trial and think it’s fixed,” she said. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next in the trajectory of the movement. I’m still trying to work through the emotions that come with it.”

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” said one Pensacola resident who did not want to give a name. “It’s good to see justice done at this particular time but there are so many others.”

The man has lived in Pensacola since 1941 and admittedly hasn’t always felt the way he does now about social justice. Over the years his views changed. At the vigil he was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt as he stood to watch speakers. 

“The blue line — it needs to be broken,” he said. “When a cop’s done something wrong, he’s done something wrong. When I see lights behind me that’s just a cop stopping me. But if I was Black, it would be a moment of terror. Sometimes you just need to speak up. It's best to try and be brave.”

WUWF's Sarah Jane Brock produced the audio component to this story.