A word cloud of comments from the Hamilton Vigil for Hope.

It was clear from the first speaker that a Hamilton virtual vigil to honor black lives lost to racism was meant to inspire positive action.

A collaboration of the Dean of Students Office organized the Vigil for Hope on June 2 to address the ongoing pattern of systemic racism and violence, most recently the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died May 25 in the custody of Minneapolis police. Several police officers, since fired, were charged in connection with Floyd’s death.

 Some 200 people took part in the Vigil for Hope via Zoom, leaving with a promise that organizers would email a “racial equity commitment card” that Hamilton community members could use to document their commitment and take personal responsibility for systemic change. As the vigil unfolded, participants shared words that described their feelings — responsible, privileged, angry — and Paola Lopéz Fincannon, director of the Days-Massolo Center created a word cloud to capture them. 

I hope that tonight we can find hope in the power of our community, that we can commit to individual action and collective effort to do our part, to ensure that all who arrive on this campus to learn, to teach and to live can do so with dignity and pride.

The vigil acknowledges the pain of seeing yet another black body tragically and needlessly taken at the hands of law enforcement, Vice President and Dean of Students Terry Martinez said to open the event. Every time we experience the pain and anger from the deaths, she went on, we vow to change as a society but somehow we never do.

“But there are things that we can do, that we must do, in order to have a just world,” Martinez said.

The College has created a plan that so far has included more than 20 training sessions, dialogues, and projects to support community members who feel isolated, targeted, and stressed by the weight they bear for simply being who they are, Martinez said. But making change takes effort by more than the few who “don’t have the privilege of turning a blind eye.” 

“We must all speak out. We must all commit to examining our individual behavior and committing anew to questioning the role we each play in creating a hostile or unwelcoming environment,” she said. “I hope that tonight we can find hope in the power of our community, that we can commit to individual action and collective effort to do our part, to ensure that all who arrive on this campus to learn, to teach and to live can do so with dignity and pride.”

As a critical race theorist, Todd Franklin, the Christian A. Johnson Excellence in Teaching Professor of Philosophy and Africana Studies, told the virtual audience that he tends to focus on certain words, and for the vigil he would focus on words rather than his personal pain. Racism was one of the words. Revolution was another.

The racism of vicious, vigilante, state-sponsored murder of black people, under the guise of serving justice, “has been thrust into our faces,” he said. And the many forms of resistance people use to stand up against that racism seem to prove futile.

“These are not ordinary days. Now we are in the midst of open rebellion. Not riots — you'll hear the rhetoric of riots. We are not in the midst of riots. We are not in the midst of simple, violent, civic unrest. Rather, we're in the midst of rebellious uprisings against oppression, specifically targeting the economic, political, and legal status quo,” Franklin explained. 

But rebellions are explosive moments that flash and fade, and what we need, he said, is nothing short of revolution against political forces and institutions that bear so heavily on his daily existence and that of others. 

“This nation, our nation, must become a nation that respects everyone regardless of race, instead of killing people in virtue of race. This revelation, this revolution, will take courage, persistence, cooperation. But most of all, it will take a deep and abiding conviction that as a nation we should be, can be, and must be better than this,” he said. “Hence, I joined all of you, at this particular moment, at this particular virtual gathering of our community, to share with you and to call upon you to join in committing yourselves, not simply to change, not to reform, but to revolution. Because what we really need is a transformation of the institutions and forces that bear so heavily and differentially upon so many of our citizens.”

Calls for hope, as well as to action, were voiced during  the gathering. College Chaplain Jeff McArn asked that participants, each in their own way, pray to the spirit of hope. “We are gathered in vigil tonight, waiting, expecting, anticipating, the spirit of hope. There is an audacity to such an expectation that something hopeful is headed our way, and that we might be a part of it to help usher it in,” McArn said.

The final call to action came from Maria Genao-Homs, associate dean of diversity and inclusion, who was direct in her words. The vigil is not the end of the community’s collective action, she asserted. “I call everyone in, and I call everyone up. We can do this work, and we will do this work,” Genao-Homs said.

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