ITHACA, N.Y. — Protesters paid tribute to victims of police brutality both local and nationwide on Wednesday night, holding a candlelight vigil and march that drew dozens to downtown Ithaca.

The event, deemed a candlelight vigil, was initially aimed at rejecting police violence against Black people, sparked by the Sunday shooting of Jacob Blake. Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin in front of his three children after he broke up a domestic incident. He was unarmed, and his current condition is unclear, though his father has told media that Blake is paralyzed as a result. 

It was a mostly somber event to begin, starting after dark and with few speakers. Several audience members said the event’s organizers wanted to remain anonymous. About 60 attendees lit dozens of candles and set them around the Black Lives Matter mural at the intersection of State and Plain Streets, forming a perimeter at the intersections of Seneca and State Streets with Plain Street. Most were quiet and passersby were respectful, save for one person driving by who shouted “Fuck George Floyd” from their car window before speeding off. Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, setting off a string of nationwide protests that continue today. 

Dante Christ Jon Gilliam, a Black man, delivered an emotional and religiously tinged monologue about what he felt was a need for unity, marking the first speaker of the night. 

“I’m grateful that you stand for what I stand for,” he said, addressing the crowd. “I’m grateful to know that there are people out there that know the pain that I stand here with. If you don’t do what is necessary for others to know how you feel […] You just got to do it. You got to stand for something and believe in something.”

Another audience member, Colton Bready, came forward to again belabor the fact that protests such as these tend to attract very few people of color, a criticism that has been levied frequently at the recent wave of protests in Ithaca. He ended by encouraging the people gathered to call their elected representatives and apply pressure for them to take tangible steps to end police brutality. 

“While I understand we’re here to grieve and reflect on the people who have been broken by the system in one way or another, I want to ask all of you what the fuck you’re actually going to do when you leave tonight,” Bready said. “Are we going to do the same shit over and over again? Because it’s not fucking working.”

Other attendees spoke about being in the fight for racial justice for the long haul, even after nearly three months of protesting over the same topics and frustratingly slow progress nationally. 

“The collective mourning of citizens harmed by the system, in particular Brown and Black citizens that are disproportionately harmed by the system advocating for their lives and letting people know that the dead still are around and they still live here is important,” said Meek, who prefers to go by his first name. “The most important part, even if it doesn’t get to the legislative aspect, is changing people’s minds. Legislation is a slow-moving battle, but changing people’s minds is a lot easier than changing a bill.”

After an hour, the group decided to march through the streets of downtown Ithaca, onto the Commons and over to Ithaca Police Department’s headquarters, where they spent the next two hours. Following the march, the group lined IPD’s parking lot with the candles from the vigil and commenced with chanting slogans about defunding the police department, as well as invoking the names of Shaun Greenwood, Rose DeGroat and Cadji Ferguson, all Black victims of police violence in Ithaca. Later, protesters also called for police to solve the murder of Dejour Gandy, a Newfield man who was killed in December, a crime that has still not been solved and for which very little information has been released. 

When the group first arrived to IPD, one officer quickly emerged from the office, saying that emergency services may be needed and that the protesters should move, although the parking lot across the street remained unblocked. Protesters responded by chanting “Cops protect property.” The officer quickly responded, “And people.” The two sides went back and forth a few more times before the officer went back inside the building. 

He soon returned with another officer, who began attempting to take pictures of the protesters’ faces, something that has happened at a number of recent protests. In response, protesters turned their backs on the officers. The police then returned to the building. 

Around 30 protesters remained for about two hours, alternating between chanting and using the melted wax from the candles to spell messages like “No more names” and “Fuck IPD” on the entrance to the headquarters’ driveway. There were no more direct interactions with police. 

“All these candles and we still don’t have enough for all the Black lives lost this month,” Meek said as the group marched to IPD.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com