A crowd of about 80 people stood in silence for seven minutes and 46 seconds June 23 in Litchfield’s Central Park.
Many shifted their stances uncomfortably in the silence, which was interrupted by the faint clinking of dishes and laughter from a restaurant patio across the street, and the occasional passing car.
They closed their eyes in thought and prayer. They glanced at the others gathered around them.
And they remembered.
Seven minutes, 46 seconds: The time that a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd.
Floyd’s death on May 25 sparked protests and riots nationwide — and in the weeks since then, a national conversation about race.
Keeping that conversation alive is what brought many to Central Park for an event billed as A Community Vigil: Standing in Solidarity with Black Lives.
“With the murder of George Floyd, which is almost a month ago now, it’s very easy for us to feel like that was in the past,” Nick Olson, a Litchfield resident, said in opening the vigil. “So, it’s really great that we can be here a month later, still gathered with the important message, and I encourage us all that we need to stay diligent. We can’t be here tonight and have this be the end. This needs to be the beginning, the continuation as we move forward.”
Olson was among a small group including Anna Brock, Jenna Sandoe, Aimee Haag and Noah Kreger who organized the vigil.
“This is really important to me,” Sandoe, who has lived in Litchfield for a couple of years, said after the vigil’s conclusion. “I needed a space to process and know that there are other people in our community that also care. I think we all felt like we wanted to do something … if there are other people in the community that feel the same way, or if there are people of color in the community, just making sure that they understand that they have white allies.”
Kreger, a 2017 Litchfield High School graduate who grew up in rural Darwin, told the assembled crowd that he knew what it was like to need allies, to be one of the few Black students in a school of hundreds. To be afraid to speak up when words or actions cut deeply.
He asked if there were people in the crowd who had ever been “the only white person in the room” or “if you’ve ever felt scared or threatened you’re going to hear a derogatory or racist remark.” Few hands went up for either inquiry.
“That feeling was a reality for me and other people of color in rural communities,” Kreger said. “And that took a toll. When you hear countless remarks, day in and day out, you start to believe it.
“I began to deny my blackness and who I was, I began to become complicit with the racism around me,” Kreger added, “because I didn’t want to be the stereotypical angry ghetto Black man that so many of my peers talked about. I started hiding my emotions when I would hear or be called the N-word, “boy,” “Blackie.” You name it, I probably heard it and then some.”
Kreger was a National Honor Society member and a three-sport athlete while attending LHS. He now attends the University of Minnesota.
Despite academic and athletic successes, his days in Litchfield left him with a mix of emotions. The cutting remarks didn’t just come from other students, but from adults, some of whose backhanded compliments — “Oh, well, you’re so much different than what I expected,” or “Oh, well, you speak so well for a Black guy” — struck as the cruelest of insults.
But, Kreger said, he never felt comfortable speaking up or asking to be treated with respect.
“I wanted to speak up so bad, but I never felt that sense of backing in my community,” he said. “And I thought once I got away from Litchfield I could just forget about it completely. But you can’t do that. Those (words) cut so deep.”
He acknowledged that not everyone was like that, that he knew he had supporters. He just wished — still wishes — for more.
“I want to thank everybody that is here today in support of the Black community and people of color,” he said. “We have got to be better. And that can start with everybody here.”
He encouraged people to “have those uncomfortable conversations with friends, family and co-workers,” because it is only through those conversations that real change will emerge.
Anna Brock, a 2018 LHS graduate now attending Concordia College in Moorhead, told the crowd that racism runs deep. So much so that many don’t even recognize it as racism.
“Like a virus, white supremacy lingers in the very air we breathe,” Brock said. “Like a virus, white supremacy can remain invisible to us, to many of us, until we see the horrific symptoms, and like a virus it will take all of us to collectively dismantle white supremacy and systemic racism. So we keep vigil, not just tonight, not just this week, or this month. Keeping vigil is to commit to a continuous process of reflection, education and action.”
The Rev. Christian Muellerleile of Zion Lutheran Church offered a prayer that included statistics about why Black lives matter — numbers that indicate that Black women are three times more likely to die from complications of childbirth, that the median wealth of black families is one-tenth that of white families, that black people are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.
“Because it’s more than a hashtag,” Muellerleile said. “It’s become the heartbeat of a movement. We say black lives matter.”
Sandoe and Haag followed Muellerleile, asking the crowd to observe seven minutes and 46 seconds of silence and reflection.
As the time elapsed, Haag reminded the crowd what they experienced.
“That represents, of course, the duration that a police officer, a human being, put his knee on the neck of a person, a human being,” Haag said. “And perhaps what was most uncomfortable about this whole moment of silence is to hear the traffic, distantly. People just carrying on. To hear (voices from) the patio. People were joyful as the same time of that pain.
“I was distracted. I was uncomfortable,” she continued. “And then I look out at this community that I feel like I know, but I don’t know many people here. Take a look around at each other, maybe you were doing that during that seven minutes and 46 seconds. I was looking around at all those faces that I don’t know, and I know that if that happened right here, (someone) would stand up for me, that would hopefully speak loudly and speak truthfully, ‘This is not just.’”
Olson concluded the vigil by asking again that the gathering, which lasted less than an hour, not be the end of remembering, but a beginning of change. He asked those in attendance to share contact information so that news of future gatherings could be sent to them, so that connections started at the vigil could continue well into the future.
“It’s hard,” he said. “But we’re here tonight because we’re committed to doing the hard work. Like Noah mentioned, this is marathon work. Not many people run marathons. But we can, and we will.
“Our hope is to educate folks. Our hope is to have these tough conversations,” he said. “Our hope is to talk to elected officials. Our hope is to talk to the School Board. Our hope is to make change through action.”