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Vigil for victims of police violence draws hundreds to MLK Park

A large and peaceful vigil was held in memory of George Floyd in Buffalo’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park Saturday afternoon. It was one of several major demonstrations that took place across the city.

The vigil was organized by local activists and the Black Lives Matter Buffalo chapter and also remembered local residents of color who have been killed by Buffalo police or in custody in recent years, including India Cummings, Wardel "Meech" Davis and Rafael "Pito" Rivera.

A Buffalo activist named Alia Williams helped organize the event, which drew several hundred attendees. She told the assembled crowd that she was urged to action by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore.

Buffalo activist Alia Williams addresses vigil attendees.

"I remember after watching that on CNN, I went upstairs in my room and I balled my eyes out," Williams said. "And then I thought about what I would do if that happened in my city, and then stupidly I said to myself, 'That ain't gonna happen in my city.' But it did."

At one point during the vigil, Williams also spoke directly to the white people in attendance about what it means to be an ally to people of color.

"Coming to protests, marching, yes, that's important. Backing us, yes, that is 100% important," she said. "But what is also important is you checking what's going on in your home [and] what goes on in your work environment. Because you have a voice too and you can only be a true ally if you use your voice in front of your own people, not just when you around us."

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Former Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant recalled marching in the Civil Rights movement in her youth Saturday.

Former Erie County Legislator, Buffalo Common Council member and Buffalo Board of Education member Betty Jean Grant was also among the speakers. Grant, who is 72, said she remembers being part of a Civil Rights march just 17 miles away from Memphis, Tennessee, on the day when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. She also told WBFO that she didn't expect to still be fighting for racial justice in 2020 but that she's heartened by large-scale peaceful protests in Buffalo.

"We're protesting and demonstrating because of the death, the murder, of George Floyd, and if you look at the audience [at this vigil], it's both white [people] in this audience and African Americans," Grant said. "So, it shows that when people see indignity, when they see injustices, when they see racism, they're going to speak out. And I hope this will be the start of a greater relationship between not just Buffalo police and the community, but between Blacks and white and other ethnic groups in the city of Buffalo."

Grant is also the founder of the local organization We Are Women Warriors, which she started in 2014 following the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Myles Carter was another speaker at Saturday's event. Carter is the Buffalo man who was tackled and arrested by Buffalo police officers on Bailey Avenue Monday night while giving a live interview to WIVB-TV.

Asked why he thought so many Buffalo residents are now turning out to protest police brutality, a 28-year-old vigil attendee named Levi ventured a guess.

"Rich people and poor people were affected by the [coronavirus] pandemic. It put everyone in a place of empathy," Levi said. "When this George Floyd brother was killed, everyone felt it a little bit harder. People are starting to get it now."

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Levi, a 25-year-old attendee of Saturday's vigil, called for Sheriff Timothy Howard to resign.

Levi said he wants to see new residency requirements so Buffalo’s East Side can be policed by officers who live there. He also said it’s time for Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard to resign.

"Timothy, you gotta come out here, Tim. The people have spoken. It's about accountability."

That sentiment was echoed at the larger protest in downtown Buffalo Saturday night, where organizers read the names of 30 people who have died in custody at the Erie County Holding Center since Howard took office.

After a program including several community speakers, music breaks and prayer, the vigil ended with several minutes of silence in honor of George Floyd and other victims of police violence.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.