A Call for Change

UTEP's Black Student Union holds vigil for police brutality victims

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A Call for Change

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As the sun sets in downtown El Paso, a row of people on a small stage hold up photos of the black men and women police have killed. In front, candles burn brightly behind a large sheet of paper that holds dozens of names of people whose light is no longer shining.

A candlelight vigil was held to commemorate the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. More than 200 people gathered on Sunday, July 10, at San Jacinto Plaza. The crowd consisted of a wide range of ethnicities, ages and religions. The event was coordinated by UTEP’s Black Student Union and Parents and Families of Lesbian and Gays (PFLAG). They also teamed up with New Mexico University’s Black Student Union and representatives from nine different organizations.

“I’m here because I’m a black male in a community that needs to have a little more light shined on recent tragedies and the tragedies that have gone on for many years,” said Darian Broadnax, a junior transfer student majoring in kinesiology who will be attending UTEP in the fall.

Shyla Cooks, president of BSU and junior biological sciences major, said another member suggested the vigil and she felt it was necessary to organize it in response to the continued killings of the black population by police.

“There was something about it that made me want to move forward with it in a passionate manner,” Cooks said. “Solidarity is important because without unity we can’t really have true freedom.”

The vigil featured prayers, songs, slam poetry and passionate speeches by those who have lost loved ones at the hands of the police. A receptive crowd sang along to “We Shall Overcome,” and cried when they heard the words of a mother who outlived her son because of the El Paso police force.

June Straight, a teacher at San Elizario High School, preformed a poem called “Orlando” that she wrote less then a month ago. The poem was named after the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed and 53 injured. Straight’s poem reflected the solidarity between marginalized groups that were present throughout the vigil.

“Solidarity is important because we’re human and humans work together and when they work together great things happen,” Straight said. “It’s about people listening to other people who are hurting and saying, ‘You know what, I may not understand your pain, but I acknowledge that you feel it and you feel it for a reason, and whatever I can do, I’m here.’”

Lorena Soto, vice president of the board of directors for PFLAG, said they helped organize the event because of the loss of two innocent black men.

“One day right after the next we lost two innocent black men,” Soto said. “I was heartbroken about it, I was angry about it. It was right after my community, the gay community, experienced the huge loss in Orlando, and we were still mourning that loss. We need to come together as minorities and support each other.”

Selfa Chew, interim chair of the African American Studies Program at UTEP, said the event was created to show unity and help the community get a better understanding of the issue at hand despite remarks from the city’s police chief.

Greg Allen, the first-ever elected black police chief in El Paso, drew national attention with his controversial statement calling Black Lives Matter a radical hate group responsible for the recent shooting in Dallas that lead to the death of five police officers. Allen’s comment was quickly condemned by El Paso Representative Beto O’Rourke, County Judge Veronica Escobar, Senator Jose Rodriguez as well as other city representatives.

Soto said Allen’s remark was a dangerous one, especially when it’s from someone in a position of power, and that by saying it people grew afraid about the event continuing.

“He was considering this group of beautiful and peaceful students a threat to the community,” Chew said. “We were very worried about it, but we also had faith in the community and that they were well informed.”

The chief’s remark was not forgotten at the vigil. A poster was held up behind the speakers with the words “Silence=Murder. How’s your radical hate group Chief Allen.” Despite Chief Allen’s comments, he was still invited to the vigil, but did not attend.

“Luckily, our community stepped forward, and we actually had police start calling the Black Students Union to give their support, to say we don’t agree with what our chief said,” Soto said. “They were amongst us today, they were out here in plain clothes so as not to draw attention to themselves. They came up to us and said ‘We’re here to protect you, to make sure your message is heard.’”

Cooks also had a message for UTEP students.

“Facebook will not change anything, you can get on Facebook, you can rant all day long, but you are not doing anything. So get up, spread awareness, learn this system, and figure out what is needed to be done,” she said. “Because how you feel, someone else feels that way. Find those people, unite and make change.”

For more information on future events, students may use Minetracker or visit pflagelpaso.org.

Michaela Roman and Christian Vasquez may be reached at [email protected]

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