In the wake of the horrific killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, a group of Nantucket High School students organized an island-wide Black Lives Matter demonstration that echoed the calls for justice heard around the world. On the first of June, hundreds of people gathered at Tom Nevers Field in what was believed to be the largest racial justice demonstration in the history of Nantucket.
Beginning around 5:30pm, cars poured onto the field until virtually every patch of grass the size of a baseball field was covered. With many sitting on the hoods of their vehicles and holding up hand-drawn signs, gatherers listened to the young co-organizers deliver moving addresses over a bullhorn from the back of a pickup truck.
“I’m tired of watching the Black boys in my life turn into men and wondering if they’ll get to live long lives, or if it will be cut short because of the complete ignorance and blatant racism that runs rampant in this country,” said seventeen-year-old co-organizer, Liela Marrett. “I’m traumatized.”
Marrett described how the killing of Trayvon Martin eight years ago was a painful turning point in her life. “I was only nine years old then, but it was clear that this didn’t affect my non-black peers the way it affected me,” she said. “I was forced to grow up faster than my non-black peers because I had to learn to accommodate the majority. Being carefree is what life is about as a child, but how could we be carefree when we had to constantly worry about fitting into the white American image?”
Fellow co-organizer Johnny Sussek spoke about how his fellow non-black community members should get involved. “I know that I will never understand the ceaseless pain and struggle it is to be a person of color in America,” Sussek said, flanked by Marrett and their fellow co-organizer Britney Anderson. “As non-black allies, all white people must empathize, to try and feel a fraction of the pain, and most importantly, to use their voices to fight.”
Both of Sussek’s grandmothers were activists, one of whom actually marched for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the sixties. Some sixty years later, Sussek’s words were a reminder that while America has come a long way since his grandmothers marched for equality, the country still has a long way to go in what he described as the battle against systemic and non-systemic racism.
While Sussek and Marrett spoke about the insidious nature of racism on Nantucket, Britney Anderson pointed directly to its most flagrant manifestation in recent memory. “I am tired of racism being swept under the rug,” Anderson said. “Why has it been two years since someone committed a hate crime on the African Meeting House? It is 2020. This is embarrassing. Our community needs to do better within itself before thinking we can spark change in the world.”
Pointing to the vile defacement of the African Meeting House in March 2018, when a racial slur was spray painted across its doors, Anderson’s words did not go unheard. Others throughout the community echoed the perplexing question: Why has no one been held accountable for this hate crime on Nantucket?
Within a day of the demonstration on Tom Nevers Field, a petition was created on Change.org by Nantucket High School student Logan Hennessy that demanded an update from the Massachusetts State Police and the Cape and the Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe. The Nantucket Police Department had turned over the case to the State Police and the Cape and the Islands DA last June after fifteen months of investigation. “The investigation is still very much alive and it’s actually been taken over by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office,” said Chief Bill Pittman at the Select Board meeting on June 3rd. “So while there is no arrest made, I do expect there will be some visible action within the next few months.”
Hennessy’s petition, which was bearing down on ten thousand signatures at press time, also grabbed headlines in The Boston Globe: “Amid national protests, Nantucket residents still want to know who defaced a Black landmark.” Two days after the Globe story appeared, another group of former Nantucket High School students launched a website – JusticeforNantucket.com – to amplify the calls for action surrounding the African Meeting House case and spur engagement within the community.
A week later, on June 12th, a candlelight vigil was held on Main Street organized by adults of The Nantucket Justice League and the Unitarian Church. Indeed, as has happened in some of the most pivotal moments in American history, the youth is largely to thank for invigorating this movement towards a more just society on and off the island.
Thank you to editor-in-chief John Carl McGrady and the staff of the Nantucket High School’s award-winning newspaper Veritas for their diligent reporting on the demonstration, which served as an invaluable resource in this special edition of NBUZZ.