BOISE — On the steps of the Idaho Statehouse just before sunset Tuesday, Whitney Mestelle told the crowd of thousands of people gathered before her that the names she was about to read — of black people who had died by violence from police or otherwise — was by no means exhaustive.
Even so, it took her co-organizer of the Black Lives Matter Candlelight Vigil — Jessie Levin — over 20 minutes to read more than 60 names. After she read each name, the masses surrounding her and carpeting the capitol mall before her — almost all of whom wore face coverings to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus — would repeat the name with a solemn, reverent air.
Some of the names, such as Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner, would likely be familiar to most people across the country as a result of news coverage; other names were less so. The final name Levin read was that of George Floyd, the black man who died last week after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes. Outrage at Floyd’s death has sparked days of demonstrations in cities across the country, some of which have become violent riots.
While there was a great deal of emotion when the crowd repeated Floyd’s name — and could be heard echoing throughout the walls of downtown Boise — Levin and Mestelle specifically aimed at harnessing that emotion rather than let it devolve into something destructive, as it has in other cities.
They implored the crowd again and again to remain peaceful, as Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and Acting Boise Police Chief Ron Winegar had asked people to do earlier in the day.
“This is a vigil,” Levin told the crowd at the start of the event. “If your intention is not one of reflection and not one of mourning, this is not the space for you.”
Her words were met with cheers and applause. And, in the end, the throng heeded her advice — the event ended at roughly 10 p.m., just after sunset, and it remained peaceful.
That was the outcome Atticus Thiel hoped to see when he attended the event, he said. He wanted to attend to help bridge the rift of racism that has always existed in the country.
“I just want to make sure no one else gets killed,” Thiel told the Idaho Press, just before the event began.
Protesters started to march after the vigil, and tensions rose as the night wore on. After 11 p.m., bicycle police formed a line between the main group of protesters and a smaller group of counterprotesters.
“Some protesters now confronting the police. Still peaceful. Angry and frustrated but peaceful,” Melissa Davlin with Idaho Reports tweeted at 11:14 p.m., adding 10 minutes later, “Tensions are waxing and waning. Officers just showed up in riot gear.”
While the vigil may have been a peaceful, cathartic event for thousands of people, the Black Lives Matter Candlelight Vigil was by no means always quiet. Repeatedly, the area in front of the Capitol became a sea of fists as crowd members raised them in support of black lives. There were cheers and applause and Levin urged crowd members to go forward in their lives and make a conscious effort to make one change to end racism.
“Because we can’t wait any longer,” she told them.
The response was far larger than anything she’d expected, she told the crowd. She and Mestelle didn’t organize the event in accordance with any formal group or organization — in fact, the event has its origins in Levin’s attempt to process her own grief and frustration with racism. It was bad enough for her to feel on the verge of tears on a recent drive home from work, she told the Idaho Press before the vigil.
For Levin, of Boise, it was one more thing — one more example of the inequality of black Americans she’d been aware of her whole life.
“It’s not just police treatment, but it’s unequal treatment just in general,” Levin said.
The feeling was a strong one, and she wanted an outlet for it.
“I didn’t have a place to express that mourning,” she said.
She and Mastelle began working on the vigil after that, they remembered.
“Our goal is to mourn the … black lives lost at the hands of police and community brutality, and also just to create a space and an opportunity for Idahoans of all colors to come together in solidarity” Mestelle said.
“We’re not a part of any group,” Levin said, “we’re just black Idahoans.”
It was important to her that the vigil be held safely — those who attend will be socially distanced, she said, and attendees are asked to wear masks. Mastelle said organizers wanted to take the public health threat seriously, but added she felt the event “cannot wait for the coronavirus to be over.”
Mastelle said she’d also had contact with the Boise Police Department to work on planning a safe event.
“We’re on the safe page. … The police department’s goal is definitely our goal,” Mastelle said.
And in the end the event was safe — thousands of Idahoans sat on the ground before the state’s Capitol, holding electric tea lights, and pledging to make changes in their lives to end racism.