Hundreds attend weekend of Black Lives Matter events

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BENNINGTON — Hundreds of people attended a pair of protests in Bennington over the weekend in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

More than 100 people gathered at the Four Corners downtown on Saturday night for a vigil. Some held signs calling for justice for African American victims of police killings, others lit candles to honor the lives lost, some simply stood with the crowd to show their support.

Nearly 300 attended a rally on Sunday afternoon in front of the Bennington Police Department building on South Street, where protestors stood on the sidewalks on both sides of the street, chanting slogans like "No Justice, No Peace" and "I can't breathe," the latter in reference to the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in Minnesota after a white police officer applied his knee to the man's neck for nearly nine minutes.

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Saturday's event ran from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and was organized by the Greater Bennington Peace and Justice Center. The organization is "committed to working cooperatively with its members and other partners to advance peacemaking both locally and globally, build understanding and solidarity among people and support peacebuilding economies," according to their website.

Jim Quinlan, a member of the peace and justice center, said the event had a two-fold message.

"It's to remember those who have fallen, and it's also to say 'no more,'" Quinlan said.

Lamar Thomas is from Memphis, but is currently in Bennington for work. He was grabbing dinner when he stumbled upon the vigil. Excited about the event, Thomas started recording the signs on his phone to share with his friends and family back home.

"A lot of people see African Americans protesting, and it's like OK we're standing alone, but it's not true," said Thomas. "You come out here and you see all of you guys standing with us. This is unity, this is everybody blending together and wanting change. It's awesome."

Thomas said he is "really optimistic" that change is going to happen throughout the country after witnessing the vigil.

The sound of car horns filled the evening air as traffic passing through the intersection showed their appreciation toward the cause.

At 7:36 p.m. a bell rang, and in unison all 100 plus people took a knee that lasted exactly eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd's neck, killing the 46 year old African American on May 25.

The participants remained silent throughout the nearly nine minutes, the only noise coming from the occasional vehicle honk.

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Shannon O'Brien, a Bennington resident, held a sign that read "How many weren't filmed?" O'Brien said she felt moved to use her voice to try and spread change.

"I just feel it's the least I can do, to come out here and try to spread the message of the nonsense that's happening and standing against it in whatever way we can," O'Brien said.

O'Brien said she wants to see the country rethink how policing is done throughout the country.

Quinlan held a sign of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American who was killed while jogging through a Georgia neighborhood on Feb. 23. Quinlan chose the Arbery sign because they shared a mutual hobby, running.

"To be shot for running, it's just not acceptable," Quinlan said. "It's running while (being) black. In a different world, if he were running while (being) white, we'd be having a different conversation, there would be an investigation immediately."

No one was charged with the killing of Arbery until the video appeared on social media and went viral. Charges were then filed against Travis and Gregory McMichael on May 7, 74 days after Arbery was killed.

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"That to me is disgusting," Quinlan said.

Max Misch, a self-proclaimed white nationalist, joined the event shortly after the eight minute and 46 second knee took place. Misch held a sign that read "Stop mourning violent criminals and making them into martyrs."

"I believe that I am right, and these people are wrong," Misch said. "I don't like what I see now, so I'm going to speak up, even if maybe other people who think like I do are cowed into silence, because of the potential for consequences."

There was no police presence at the vigil, which remained peaceful.

Signs remembering other African Americans who were killed by police, including Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner, were also present at the vigil.

Quinlan mentioned the police killing of Rayshard Brooks, who was shot to death by Atlanta police on Friday.

"It just keeps happening," Quinlan said. "This is the pandemic, and it needs to be treated just as seriously, if not more seriously."

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On Sunday, an event promoted in part by Mount Anthony Union High School students Carson Gordon and Eveona Williams, had around 300 people on both sides of North Street, many holding signs, doing chant and response, and nearly all wearing face coverings.

"I'm happy, look at this turnout, it's beautiful," said Taiwana Anderson. "How everyone has come together like this, this is the point. Come out here, all peaceful and love on each other. We need to come up with a solution and do something about it."

About a half-hour in, the protestors moved from the sidewalks into the road, where organizers led the crowd in kneeling. It was the first time that Bennington police were seen and they set up between the Four Corners and Union Street, blocking that part of North Street to traffic coming through.

"What [the police] did, that makes a statement too, it speaks volumes," Anderson said. "It lets us know that [the police] are going to let us say what we have to say."

Williams' uncle, Jeffrey Elwell, led some of the chants as well.

"I think it's very wonderful," said Elwell, who said his family is from Bennington. "It makes me proud of her. She's standing for her little brother, her uncles, her older brother, her cousins. We need to be treated equally, we don't want the same thing happening to [the next generation] that's happening now."

The crowd was a diverse one, ranging widely in ages and races.

"Everyone is tired of it," Elwell said. "They are tired of people not being treated equal. [They say] BLM is a terrorist organization, do we look like that? We're being peaceful, keeping the peace, we want peace. Other people [that] were looting, those kids are lost souls. They're angry too, but as things progress, it's more organized and peaceful."

During the Sunday event, Misch walked through again, just as he did on Saturday. On Sunday, his sign read, "Burn, Loot, Murder," with the letters BLM highlighted. A few people tried to get in Misch's way as he walked through the crowd, but cooler heads prevailed. For the most part, Misch seemed to be the only counter-protester at the event.

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A vigil was also held in Arlington on Sunday afternoon, taking place in front of the St. James Episcopal Church.


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