WO community gathers for candlelit vigil

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Approximately 80 West Orange residents marched down Main Street and held a candlelit vigil on Thursday, Aug. 17, to show their support for the victims of violence in Charlottesville, Va., as well as to stand up against the white supremacist rallies and terror attacks at the University of Virginia that occurred last week. The vigil, organized in only three days by Essex County grassroots organization Essex Rising, drew speakers and participants from in and around West Orange to share a moment of silence and speak out against the violence.

On Aug. 11 and 12, white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville for a Unite the Right rally to protest the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials from public spaces. The white supremacist rallies sparked many to come and counterprotest. In addition to several brawls, one man was arrested after driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring several others.

Essex Rising’s statement on Charlottesville, found on the group’s website, reads: “Essex Rising stringently condemns all forms of violence and hatred. The incident that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend was a symptom of an underlying white-supremacist scourge that has plagued our country since its founding. Today, we see the appointed President of the United States not only openly endorsing that scourge, but encouraging it. We must not allow forces of hate and evil to divide us.”

When the marchers reached the Municipal Building after walking the half mile down Main Street from the West Orange Community House, they lit candles and stood on the front lawn while listening to West Orange resident Akil Khalfani speak.

“We should be reflective, but somewhat enraged by what’s going on,” Khalfani, vice president of the West Orange African Heritage Organization, said at the event. “It’s good to have hope, but hope doesn’t bring action. We have to be the ones that speak up when we see violent and threatening things going on.”

Khalfani’s teenage son, Jakata, also spoke at the vigil after being introduced by his father.

“It’s important that we have young folks here and it’s important to hear their voices,” Akil Khalfani said. “We hope that attending these types of events is the beginning of their training.”

Referring to the violence and hate speech in Charlottesville, Jakata Khalfani said, “When did we become afraid to love? Since when is accepting, loving and caring for one another — no matter what race you are — extremist? My call to action here is to speak to local political leaders and encourage them to speak up and tell their representatives that it’s not going to be tolerated to put down any group for any reason.”

Cindy Matute Brown, a member of Essex Rising and an event organizer, closed the vigil as the sun went down with thoughts of her own.

“This new era of bigotry is not new to people of color,” she said. “We’ve challenged systemic oppressions only to be told to be patient, or that we’re playing the race card.”

Brown went on to say that she didn’t have any answers for how to respond to hate and bigotry, but it is important to stand up to leadership and hold elected officials accountable for their actions.

“Be intentional about calling out microaggressions. Be intentional about holding our leaders accountable — all leaders,” she said. “I’m sure we will all be more political because we have no choice. We elect those members, and they owe us a responsibility to represent us.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic