Atatiana Jefferson’s name rang out over and over from a crowd expressing sorrow and seeking community support Tuesday evening at I AM A MAN Plaza next to Memphis’ historic Clayborn Temple.
Jefferson, 28, was gunned down by a Fort Worth, Texas, cop during an early Saturday morning wellness check requested by her neighbor, concerned because he saw her doors open, according to CNN. About 60 people gathered as dusk brushed the sky a deep, mournful blue to honor her life and grieve the loss of a loving auntie, who had stayed up late to play video games with her 8-year-old nephew.
“A friend of mine has said that the reality of a black person in America is not to be enraged, but it’s to be so depressed that we do not know the difference,” said Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who helped organize the vigil with the Rev. Vahisha Hasan and Jayanni Webster, a community organizer. “We are in a traumatic place.”
In the crowd were Jeremy Pierre and Kelsey Green, alumni of Xavier University of Louisiana, both wearing Xavier sweaters to honor Jefferson, who earned her degree in biology there. A poem and a rendition of the black national anthem, “Lift Evr’y Voice and Sing,” led to a moment where Hasan asked the group to lift their voices and share their feelings.
“I am fearful,” Sydney Kesler said.
“I’m fearful of the repetitiveness of these systems,” said another.
“PTSD is not just for war,” said another voice, starting to crack with emotion. “It’s not something that happens overseas. It’s every day. When you see police cars driving by. When you have nieces and nephews that look like Trayvon Martin. When your dad tells you not to drive to Germantown at night. Where can you exist when you’re black? I hope that we can create community. Safe places for black people to exist. Music where we could dance and be with each other and laugh with each other, and not worry about death.”
A small altar was set up on a cloth and placed at the base of the words glowing at the plaza center: “I AM A MAN,” the same words striking Memphis sanitation workers carried on signs during the 1968 strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, where he was assassinated.
Jefferson’s name was handwritten on a yellow page in all caps. ATATIANA. Around her name were purple flowers and LED candles.
“We deserve to live,” said Renae Taylor, who took a moment to share a testimony with the crowd. She offered a quote from Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
“The air we breathe, the blood that flows through our hearts, our broken hearts are all your masterpiece,” the Rev. Ayanna Johnson Watkins, lead organizer for MICAH, said while delivering a closing prayer. “We dare hate to take over, we dare racism to kill us, we dare grief to overwhelm us because each of us, all of us are made in the image of God — and we will not quit.”
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