Travis Harris, a 33-year-old William & Mary graduate student and the leader of Williamsburg’s Black Lives Matter movement, put out a call on Facebook Thursday afternoon for supporters to gather at Aromas the following day.
The turnout—nearly a dozen people, half black and half white, from various walks of life—was big enough to relocate the gathering to a nearby college building.
While the meeting originally followed a focused agenda, Harris decided to go off script 20 minutes in and asked those gathered to share anything they had on their minds.
It had only been three days since Alton Sterling was shot to death by police in Louisiana, two since Philando Castile met a similar fate in Minnesota, and fewer than 24 hours since five Dallas police officers were killed by a sniper during a peaceful protest.
One attendee spoke to the fear of being desensitized, another to maintaining trusting relationships with police and a third to the need to “protect each other.”
“This is complicated,” Harris said. “At the end of the day it’s not about our individual plans or goals. It’s bigger than all of us.”
The group brainstormed ideas for encouraging transparency from the Williamsburg, James City County and William & Mary police departments. Members are also planning a vigil to help residents heal.
For Williamsburg residents who wish to support their neighbors of color, Harris discourages saying “I understand” or “It’s going to be alright.”
“Those are basically code words for disregarding one’s pain and their place in the midst of a situation,” Harris said, adding that while he knows people are trying to be empathetic when they use those phrases, “it won’t work.”
He also encouraged residents to step outside of themselves and “be selfless.”
“It’s not about you or any guilt you may be feeling,” he said. “It’s about your neighbor and what they’re going through at this time.”
While Harris appreciated the turnout at Friday’s meeting, he said it’s important to recognize the momentum to support Black Lives Matter and fight police brutality will wane. There’s a cycle, he said, that begins with a police killing, national outcry and protest, and indictment or a lack of indictment, and then a lull before the next killing.
“We need to break this cycle,” Harris said. “There’s this gap between people who are doing the work every day and the national outcry. What we need to do is close the gap. It can’t just be 20 people doing the work.”
He also emphasized that the issue is “so much more than the direct killing.” It’s systemic, touching history, sociology, education and more, he said.
Carter McNeese, a Williamsburg resident and minister, said dialogue and real change comes when people are proactive.
“By reacting, it doesn’t, in the end, accomplish anything, except make us feel a little better,” McNeese said.
He urged supporters to ask themselves, “What is the Williamsburg we want to become? What is the James City County we want to become?”