Prayer Vigil

MV NAACP prayer vigil, Inkwell beach, July 11, 2016

MV NAACP prayer vigil, Inkwell beach, July 11, 2016

Sometimes I get sucked into the not-uncommon belief that whatever unfolds on Martha’s Vineyard is not real life. I don’t lock my home either when I’m in it or when I’m out. My car keys are always in the ignition except sometimes in summer I get cautious and drop them in the door pocket so they can’t be seen from the street. When I walk in the woods at all hours, my biggest worry is whether my canine companion will pounce on a skunk and get us both sprayed.

When it comes to policing, my biggest fear is getting caught in a speed trap. I’m not a frequent speeder but I have occasionally caught the speedometer rising toward 60 on Barnes Road, speed limit 45.

No, correct that: My biggest fear is getting caught in a speed trap by an officer I recognize and who recognizes me.

The current president of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP is not only a white guy, he’s the chief of police in Oak Bluffs. If you want convincing that Martha’s Vineyard is not real life, that’s probably all I have to say. But since I’ve lived here a while, I know it’s more complicated than that.

So I grew up in a lily-white smallish town west of Boston that was well on its way to becoming a suburb. Police officers were quite literally our friends. I went to school with their kids. I didn’t for a moment connect them with the police officers I saw on TV, the ones who were enforcing the law of segregation, standing by while white people beat up black people and sometimes doing the beating themselves.

Then I moved to Washington, D.C. Not only did I move to Washington, D.C., which was about 80 percent black at the time, I moved to Washington, D.C., in the heyday of the antiwar movement, which I promptly got involved in. As a marshal (as peacekeepers were called in those days) at antiwar demos, I often found myself standing within a few feet of police officers. Some were stern, others friendly. At some demos, the big challenge was keeping the right-on revolutionary hotheads at a distance. These (almost invariably white) guys wanted to provoke the cops into beating up the marshals, on the theory that this would radicalize us by showing us the power of the state. Yeah, right.

Once I was up close and personal with a line of CDU (Civil Disturbance Unit) officers. Tear gas was in the air. They were in full riot gear: masked, each indistinguishable from the next. They looked like the pigs they were sometimes accused of being.

Along with about 1,200 other people, I got busted on the Capitol steps during the Mayday demonstrations in 1971. Four members of Congress — Ron Dellums, Bella Abzug, Parren Mitchell, and Charles Rangel — had invited us up to the steps to hear them speak. The police cordoned off the steps and announced that anyone who remained on that side of the barrier was going to get arrested. They were very orderly, polite even. The young guy who arrested me asked if my parents knew I was going to be spending the night in jail.

Trouble was, sitting on the Capitol steps wasn’t illegal. After a 10-year legal battle led by the four representatives and the ACLU, the courts agreed.

Meanwhile, and in the many years since, I came to know and swap stories with more and more people who hadn’t grown up in the lily-white suburbs. People who as kids had been evicted from their homes by armed police officers and sheriff’s deputies. Gay men and lesbians who’d been busted by the vice squad. People who’d been beaten up, busted, and/or had their homes broken into because they were mistaken for someone else. (Oddly enough, this mistaken-identity thing rarely seemed to happen to white people.)

And so on and on and on.

So now I live on this island that in some ways looks like the town I grew up in. I notice when someone’s wearing a blue uniform, but my heart doesn’t start pounding. But in other ways it’s very different. I know and am in frequent touch with people all over the country, all over the world even. And on Martha’s Vineyard, unlike the town I grew up in, many families are multiracial. Those protected (somewhat) by white-skin privilege are the parents, siblings, children, and cousins of those who aren’t.

A few days ago a young woman of color posted her story to the Islanders Talk group on Facebook. Having grown up on the Vineyard, being treated as an individual, she was shocked at first when she went off-island and her color was the first and often the only thing people saw. She saw it happening to her friends, over and over. She heard stories.

It’s hard for many white people to grasp this. White is the default setting, the thing we don’t have to register about ourselves or the (white) people we meet. When someone does call attention to our whiteness, some of us get indignant: White is only a small part of what I am. All white people aren’t the same.

Well, yeah. Hold that thought.

So when word went round that the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP was calling a prayer vigil for Monday morning, July 11, I knew I had to be there. To witness, and to be in the physical presence of others who want to be part of the solution. Thanks to the ever present sound of the sea and the number of people there — despite the short notice there must have been about 250 — it was hard to hear most of what the speakers said, but when we sang “Balm in Gilead” it was impossible not to hear, and to feel part of a long line of people who’ve lived with unimaginable adversity and managed to keep hope alive.

This Saturday, July 16, there’s going to be a march in support of BlackLivesMatter. We’ll gather at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven at 10 a.m., walk to Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs (about three miles), form a circle around the park’s perimeter, and remain until everyone has arrived. The #13 VTA bus runs between VH and OB so you can get back to wherever you left your car.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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2 Responses to Prayer Vigil

  1. I always thought after living overseas that every American should have to spend one year in a foreign country where English is not spoken and your skin makes you blatantly different, where your religion is not the majority consensus and not-knowing how other people are seeing you, your culture, your religion, your nationality, and your skin color lays icy fear along the spine whenever you are outnumbered in a crowd. It’s made me a better citizen of this country, a better juror, a better voter. And now it makes me a better listener. Thank you for telling your amazing story in this ongoing national saga…Tell us how the march goes!


    • You are so right! I do believe that it’s one thing that makes our current president so special: He did some of his growing up in Indonesia, and he’s got relatives in Kenya.

      The young woman I mentioned who posted about her experience on Facebook — I think she was nervous, speaking to a large (this particular FB group has about 6,000 members), unseen, mostly white audience, but the response was overwhelmingly positive, grateful for her courage and eloquence. What occurred to me is that there’s a tangible pressure in any group, and especially in small towns, not to say anything that calls attention to your difference.

      Here it’s OK to be different, but it’s less OK to call attention to it. You can feel the majority getting uneasy. As a lesbian and feminist I felt this acutely in my early years here. It’s never entirely gone away. I’m always weighing the upsides and downsides of bringing something up, and often one of the downsides is having to provide context for what I’m saying. Our frames of reference are different. It’s a little like referring to a science fiction novel in a group where no one reads sf and at least a couple of people have strong, mostly uninformed opinions about it.


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