When the news of protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Virginia hit the airwaves and the news cycle this weekend, activists on the East End mobilized to action, in an effort, they said to stand up against the painful and violent display of white nationalism, and the ensuing violence.
Vigils were planned across Long Island, and the East End. When Bonnie Cannon, Director of the Bridgehampton Childcare and Recreational Center, opened the doors of the center for a vigil Sunday evening, it was an opportunity for everyone there to take action to dismantle the walls of segregation right at home.
Last Sunday had long been designated as “Bridgehampton Day” at the Center, which as of late has served as heart of the African American community in Bridgehampton. With Erykah Badu on the speakers and burgers on the grill, the Center was already hopping when dozens of activists and community members started to gather. As 6 p.m. neared, Ms. Cannon gathered the group together in a circle. Since she didn’t have a microphone, the circle quickly grew tight.
“After we had a moment of silence,” said Ms. Cannon, “I saw that the white people were on one side and the black people were on the other. I said I wanted the white people to walk in the direction of the black people, and let’s hug, and greet each other. It was a beautiful thing. It wasn’t planned, or coordinated. But it was impactful and meaningful.”
Kathy Engel, who is a chair of the Department of Art and Public Policy for the NYU Tisch School, doesn’t think the vigil would have been the same if it had taken place anywhere else.
“This is clearly where it needed to be, with that joining together of people and neighborhoods,” said Ms. Engel. “I don’t think the group in that circle would have been the group at the Long Wharf. It was Bonnie’s leadership and sense of community that made that transition beautifully.”
Afterwards, people headed to the sidewalk in front of the Center, clutching placards in their hands. Many cars that passed slowed down to read signs with words like “Love is Stronger than Hate. Apathy is Not.” Or “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re not Paying Attention!” They honked in solidarity, and the crowd on the sidewalk cheered.
Ms. Cannon said there are a number of events at the Center that aim to bring people together, and keep conversations flowing. For example, this Friday night, Susan Taylor, the former Executive Editor of Essence magazine, will speak. Other events this fall will address issues of race relations and culture. But sometimes, it’s even more simple.
“Sometimes we just need to say everybody bring a chair and a picnic basket, and we’ll listen to some music together,” said Ms. Cannon. “We’ll open our doors, but this doesn’t need to be the only meeting ground either. Everyone should open their doors up and go places we’re not accustomed to going. Let’s make an effort and commitment to bring the community together and make us stronger.”
She hopes Sunday’s gathering at the Center, and its continuing momentum, will be the legacy of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed during the rally in Charlottesville. Ms. Heyer was a part of the counter-protest that came out in peaceful protest against the nationalist rally, and was struck by a car driven by an Ohio man who was later charged with murder in the second degree.
“We saw unity and love between individuals who probably pass each other every day on the street and don’t speak,” said Ms. Cannon. “That’s the type of person Heather Heyer was, and if not for her dying, this might not have happened.”