“It’s really devastating that we’re here again.”
The crowd, which contained politicians, activists, faith leaders and citizens from across Rhode Island, listened Friday evening as Katherine Kerwin introduced the Vigil for Change, an event hosted by the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence (RICAGV) in the wake of several mass shootings across the country.
As the sun set in a golden sky, the sprawling park at Dexter Field in Providence may have seemed an idyllic place for some late-summer unwinding – but the many local coalitions and political action groups present at the event weren’t interested in relaxation. RICAGV was joined by the Rhode Island Latino Action PAC, the One Gun Gone Project, Moms Demand Action, and the Institute of Nonviolence to honor those fallen to gun violence, to discuss moving forward after recent tragedies, and to demand that those moved by the issue contact their local political leaders to incite legislative change.
On Aug. 3, a gunman took the lives of 22 people while opening fire with a semi-automatic rifle in a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. Just a day later, another shooter took the lives of 10 people, including himself, when opening fire at a bar in Dayton, Ohio, with the use of a high-capacity, semi-automatic weapon technically classified as a pistol under federal law. A recent outbreak of shooting deaths in Chicago, Illinois, in the past week also became a major point of concern. These events, which once again shone a spotlight on the ongoing issue of gun legislation in America, were the primary subjects of remembrance during the vigil.
The event began with a group reading of “If It Were Up to Me,” an anti-violence poem written by Cheryl Wheeler, led by members of the RI Feminist Chorus. Kerwin, Director of Communications for RICAGV and Councilwoman for Providence Ward 12, came to the podium to speak about the importance of political action in the face of tragedy, and to introduce Senator Jack Reed, who delivered a statement about his hopes for furthering gun legislation in order to bring about justice for the victims lost in the El Paso and Dayton shootings.
“At this point, I think I’m running out of words,” said Nirva LaFortune, a Councilwoman of Ward 3 in Providence, who spoke of the emotional fatigue of having to endure repeated tragedies due to gun violence. “I am sick and tired of mourning these senseless deaths.”
“We need to take action. We cannot make any more excuses. We shouldn’t use violence to oppress people,” she said.
The gunman who took 22 lives in El Paso had a violent anti-immigrant manifesto traced back to him by police, who believe he published the document online minutes before opening fire. The need for acceptance and to unite communities was a common theme throughout the vigil – many speakers were members of coalitions dedicated to minority rights, or individuals who spoke of the need for people to invite those who do not look like them into their homes and lives.
Rodrigo Pimental, a leader of Young Democrats of RI, is a recipient under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy who arrived in the United States at the age of 10 months.
“I am undocumented and unafraid,” he said. “Words matter…that is why we cannot remain silent. We cannot consent to the status quo.”
The so-called “Dreamer” program allows undocumented immigrants who arrived to the U.S. before the age of 16 the temporary right to work and live in America. Pimental hopes to attend URI to study data science under the DACA program, which the current presidential administration is seeking to eliminate.
Marcella Betancur, Vice President of the RI Latino Action PAC, spoke of the strength of communities even in the wake of tragedy, and how it inspired her to continue fighting for equality and justice despite when her observation that the deaths of people of color largely tend to go unacknowledged by the mainstream media.
Anna Saal, a rising freshman at Barrington High School, spoke out against the normalization of violence for many American teenagers due to constant news exposure, and the fear that has become an ordinary part of life for schoolchildren across the country.
Rhode Island Congressional Rep. David Cicillin, spoke of the need for increased gun regulation even in the face of political opposition.
Wendy Manchester Ibrahim, a Muslim and an activist for religious freedom, reached out to the community to offer support.
“I have spoken to you and tried to put your grief in words, and like you, I am very, very tired,” Ibrahim said. “We have been asked to solve problems we cannot solve alone.”
“If this resonates with you, I hope you want to be part of this conversation with me. Diversity is our strength,” she said.
Her daughter, Halima Ibrahim, who was also present at the vigil, is one of the founding members of Rhode Island’s March for Our Lives chapter. The March for Our Lives organization was originally founded by survivors of the shooting in Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2017. Wendy grew up in Warwick and graduated from Pilgrim High School in the 1980s. She hopes that religion will be recognized as a valuable asset to unite communities, because of its inherently diverse nature.
The final speaker, Rev. Jamie Washam, closed the vigil with parting words as remembrance candles were being distributed and lit. A pastor of First Baptist Church in America, located in Providence, Rev. Washam told listeners to extend their friendship to members of the community that don’t look like them; to invite new people to dinner tables and into homes to create stronger communities. She held her candle high and asked that no one be afraid to ask others for light when their fire ran out.
A moment of silence for the fallen victims of gun violence ended the vigil. The candles, which guttered in the late breeze, were soon lit again by others standing nearby.