Home News and Features Thousands ‘Honour Their Names’ in Montpelier

Thousands ‘Honour Their Names’ in Montpelier

Standing up for black lives, a small boy carries a “Black Lives Matter” placard. Photo by Carla Occaso

Thousands of marchers of all races covered the Vermont State House lawn to support an “Honour Their Names” demonstration on Sunday, June 7.

The event, organized by two Montpelier High School seniors—Mary Ann Songhurst and Mandy Abu Aziz, along with alumna Noel Riby-William—attracted a respectful and enthusiastic crowd. 

The purpose was to hold a peaceful protest to “raise awareness about what is going on in our country regarding  police brutality against black people, while also holding a safe space to grieve the lives that have been lost and continue to be lost to this day. We want to recognize black art from speakers around the state while also paying tribute to families that have been affected by the recent unjust murders,” a Facebook post describing the event (including the British spelling of honor) states. Remarks, poems, and an open mic for black people followed.

After introductions, attendees were asked to take a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which is the time Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, which caused the unarmed Floyd’s death. Two other officers held Floyd down as well. Floyd’s death has prompted protests across the country.

Organizers took turns addressing the audience. Riby-Williams said, “when I hear the words, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it could be my two younger brothers, who I would take a bullet for. The violence of cops is very real.”

Marchers head to the State House in Montpelier. Photo by J. Gregory Gerdel
She went on to say how black lives have never been valued by white Americans. Then her two brothers spoke, one saying “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”

Songhurst then spoke, saying, “We demand the end of police brutality now.” She talked about the necessity to fund places for black people to heal. She urged people to talk to their children about racism.

Then, the microphone was opened up to any black person who wanted to address those gathered. One person, identifying himself as a black Muslim, talked about how God created all races “so we can live in diversity and harmony.”

Another spoke about the experience of a young black man on his way to a athletic event in Northfield, was addressed by a female police officer with a dog, and questioned why he was so close to a car. “Equity training is not enough,” she said. “It didn’t matter that he did everything right. All that mattered was he was a young black man.”

Montpelier High School graduating seniors Mandy Abu Aziz, left, and Mary Ann Songhurst, far right, flanked Montpelier High School alumna Noel Riby-Williams. These three organized Honor Their Names to recognize black people killed by law enforcement officers in recent years. Photo by Carla Occaso
Other ideas were thrown out there for listeners to absorb. Dismantle white supremacy, abolish the police. Reform education. Reform health care.

But a particularly poignant speech came from a 14-year-old boy from Waterbury who spoke of the most personal and relatable experiences held by a black person.

He asked white people to be aware that “your friends are being treated differently than you because of the color of their skin.” He urged people to teach kids about bias. “They need to know. I want you to recognize your privilege.”

Asked later about his speech, Damien Garcia, who will be attending ninth grade at Harwood Union High School in Duxbury, explained why he came to the State House on this day. 

“These are my rights.  I’m fighting for my future. (I’m fighting for) the young people of America, so they have a future.”

The Bridge asked several audience members where they were from and why they were there. 

“My life matters,” said Cat Lawrence of Burlington by way of New York City. But she said she wonders how much of this concern is just something for people to do who are currently on lockdown and not having much to do. “I wonder what is going to happen when people go back to business as usual. What is going to happen when work starts up again?”

Emily Sundstrom of Williston said she showed up to use her white privilege to take a stand for those for whom it might be more difficult to take a stand. 

And Lawuo Cummings of Passumpsic said she showed up because, as a black immigrant from Liberia, and as a female, she wanted to stand up “for the future of humankind.”

Burlington poet Rajnii Eddins reads from his book “Their Names Are Mine.” Photo by Tom Brown
Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos estimated attendance to be at least 1,500, but you wouldn’t have perceived a police presence unless you sought one out. Facos, masked, was in a low-key posture at the very edge of the lawn connected to the State House lawn in the shadow of the Pavilion office building on State Street. Facos explained a police presence existed—just not in a show of force.

“We’re being sensitive,” he said. Other officers were posted outside the event, including on Elm Street, Court Street, and East State Street.

People then headed out to march through the streets of Montpelier. Most people were wearing masks, but social distancing was questionable in many cases. The crowd appeared to be mostly made up of younger people, but some gray and white hairs were observed. 

Many of those who marched carried homemade signs, generally affirming calls for peace, justice, and recognition of the structural racism that continues to haunt American life. Several “Defund the Police” placards were also displayed. The march took approximately 40 minutes, and was done by around 3:30 p.m.

Other reports estimated attendance to be as high as 5,000.

J. Gregory Gerdel contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: This article originally incorrectly stated a young man was approached by a police officer with a dog in Montpelier. The event actually occured in Northfield. We regret the error.

Updated June 9 to revise crowd estimate.