They carried signs and candles. They came alone and in small groups and with their families. They stood, they sat, they knelt for exactly nine minutes. They held their fists in the air. They prayed. They mourned.
This was the scene at Wait Park Thursday night, as a group of approximately 200 gathered for a peaceful candlelight vigil in memory of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died at the hands of four former Minneapolis police officers 10 days ago, and other lives lost to senseless, racially motivated violence across the country.
“For the last nine minutes of this vigil, when I ring a bell: mourn,” organizer Sara Hepler said, addressing the crowd before the vigil began. “Mourn for those that can’t jog through a neighborhood, for those that cannot bird watch or barbecue in a park, just like this one, in peace. And mourn for those that cannot breathe.
“We mourn for our fellow human beings, for George Floyd, and those that cannot breathe.”
Originally planned as a private vigil for, perhaps, 25 people, word of the event leaked on social media early Thursday morning and the number of those who said they were attending quickly grew. Hepler said she hadn’t planned to speak at all, but wanted to make sure the intentions of the event were clear.
“We are here to gather peacefully and apart, for 20 minutes, for a vigil,” she said. “I firmly believe you are here for all the right reasons, but gatherings like this, unfortunately, bring out agitators. Please be aware, and ignore anyone provoking you. Your safety and our community’s safety is a top priority.”
If there were any “agitators,” they were as quiet as the demonstrators themselves. There was no provocation. And unlike at many other rallies that have been held across the country, and in many small and midsize towns in Oregon, there were no chants, no marches.
Nothing but a community, gathered to grieve — and stand in solidarity with the grieving.
“It is long overdue to reflect on how we, ourselves, have impacted people of color,” she said. “Ask yourself: ‘What has been my role in this? What actions or non-actions have I taken that have allowed this to continue? What are my own biases that I hold?’ Listen to your heart, and be honest with yourself.”
The crowd was mostly white and Latinx — in line with the demographics of Canby itself. It has been a hallmark of the recent wave of demonstrations that they have broken out in many small, conservative-leaning and white majority towns that do not typically take part in movements protesting racial injustice.
Those in attendance included Canby city councilors Sarah Spoon and Greg Parker.
“Ask yourself,” Hepler said again,”‘What is my call to action? Will I continue to show up? Will I stand alongside our black brothers and sisters? Will I listen with an open heart to the voices that have been silenced?’ Because, as a privileged white woman up here, my voice is not the one you should be listening to.”
Mourners were instructed to observe six feet of physical distancing and to wear face coverings if they had them. They were also told to pick up after themselves and “leave the park cleaner than when we came.”
Canby Police were aware of the event but did not have a presence there. On Friday morning, a message was posted to the Canby Police Department’s Facebook page, thanking those in attendance for remaining peaceful while standing up for what they believe in.
“We are proud to have such wonderful people in our community,” the post said. “We stand by you and support you.”
Earlier that day, Canby School District Superintendent Trip Goodall had addressed the nationwide unrest in a message to families and students, pledging his support in the fight against racial injustice and systemic oppression.
“No person should ever walk in fear due to the color of their skin,” he said.
And, in an interview with the Canby Now Podcast earlier this week, Canby Police Chief Bret Smith condemned the actions of the four former officers that led to the death of George Floyd, saying they were “in direct conflict with our core beliefs and our mission to protect life.”
“We need to mourn,” Hepler said Thursday night. “We need to hold life just as precious for those who have a skin that is a different shade from our own.
“Because,” she concluded, delivering the one line that drew applause and cheers during an otherwise solemn and reflective occasion: “black lives matter.”
Photos by Tyler Francke: