A clear plastic lantern touched the curb in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church at 5:43 p.m. Friday, casting a gentle glow onto the sidewalk outside a yellow stucco building where presidents have worshiped within sight of the White House for two centuries. Seventeen minutes later, church bells chimed all along 16th Street NW, part of a vigil to protest recent grand jury decisions not to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men.
Members of nearly 30 local churches and community organizations maneuvered through rush-hour traffic to place about 3,200 luminarias on the road’s east side. Though the goal had been to cover every block from H Street NW to the circle at Silver Spring, some stretches remained dark.
Still, the demonstration — prompted by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and billed as the “Vigil for Justice: People of Faith Lighting the Way” — drew hundreds of participants to a downtown thoroughfare swathed in symbolism.
Organizers did not choose this street at random — nor simply because it leads from the city’s edge to the White House. Lining the road behind the demonstrators were Catholic crosses and Protestant steeples, Jewish menorahs and Buddhist lions. Sixteenth Street is this city’s corridor of faith, a 6
Shortly after 5:30, dozens of white paper bags holding candles sat in neat rows just inside the entrance of the 19th Street Baptist Church. Gradually, vigil participants filtered in — a pair of retirees, a nonprofit lobbyist, a grandfather in town from Philadelphia — bundled in puffy coats, hats and scarves, ready to withstand a couple hours in the cold.
They formed a circle and sang “Solid Rock,” then bowed their heads in prayer before heading out the door. Sandra LeSesne, 67, a deacon at the church, instructed them to position the bags every four or five feet.
As they placed each one on the concrete, other people joined until a line of several dozen stretched as far as the eye could see. The flow of rush-hour traffic slowed, ignoring the green lights ahead. When a car honked, a cheer rose. Many more soon followed.
“I’m here because I am a grandmother, I am a sister,” LeSesne said.
Edward Hailes, 60, of Carter Baron East said he had come for Brown and Garner.
“I’m standing here because I am alive. I am doing what they can’t do,” he said. “We’re here for them.”
Friday night’s event preceded Saturday’s “Justice for All March,” where thousands are expected alongside the families of Brown, Garner, Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley, four black males — ranging in age from 12 to 43 — killed by police in the past half-year.
Buses will bring participants to the District from at least 10 states, according to the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
These ongoing demands for change in America’s justice system began four months ago in Ferguson, Mo., and the movement’s momentum has strengthened in recent days.
On Monday, demonstrators blocked rush-hour traffic around the White House. On Thursday, black congressional staffers organized a walkout at the Capitol. And throughout the week, the NBA’s biggest stars have worn shirts displaying Garner’s final words: “I can’t breathe.”
Shivering on the sidewalk near Church and 16th streets, Vincent Harris stood next to a man holding a sign that displayed the same words.
Harris said he was participating in the vigil with his son and two grandsons in mind.
“I hope they can grow up in a society where they don’t feel persecuted and looked at with suspicion just for who they are,” said Harris, 62, who grew up in the segregated South and wondered why patterns of racism still exist in America.
“I’ve been profiled in a store,” said the retired Episcopal priest. “You want to turn around and say, ‘I have money in my pocket. I am here to buy something. I am not here to steal.’”
The idea for Friday night’s demonstration was born in Susan Greer Burton’s living room the night of Dec. 3. Burton, who is white, watched the news about the grand jury’s decision in the Garner case with her adopted daughters, who are black.They also saw the video of his pleas for help as he was placed in a chokehold by police arresting him.
“We really need to go to the march next week,” Burton told her girls.
“I don’t want to,” said her older daughter, Maya Burton-Hall, who is 11. “I’m afraid of the police.” Her 8-year-old sister, Ella, agreed.
Burton, a member of the Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest Washington, felt obligated to provide her children with an alternative.
At 16th and Decatur, a Woodrow Wilson High School poetry slam team stopped en route to a competition and stood beside a line of candles with no demonstrators nearby.
Sophomore Kenny Carroll reprised the poem inspired by the events in Ferguson and New York: “So officers . . . set your guns to homicide,” he said, reading the words off his phone. “Change the story like the breath of the black boy you killed.”
Outside St. John’s, feet from the plastic lantern, Kirra Jarratt stood by the curb’s edge. The wind had blown out her candle, so she triggered a flashing light on her cellphone and held it inside a Starbucks cup. Jarratt and Kim Kendrick, the woman holding a flashlight next to her, are African American lawyers in the District.
“After I read about Eric Garner, I just cried,” Kendrick told her.
“It’s so scary,” Jarratt said.
“It’s just hard to believe somebody could be killed on the street.”
“I can’t even imagine being a black man.”
Kendrick shook her head, offering no response.
Ian Shapira and Mariam Baksh contributed to this report.