By Dalila Bevab and Mariah Allison
Hundreds of candles lit up the Quad on Thursday when the Bellarmine community came together for a memorial to honor Breonna Taylor’s life. Taylor was killed March 13 by the Louisville Metro Police Department after the police raided the apartment she shared with her boyfriend.
The event began with students creating their own posters and banners to express important messages for justice. It followed with students and faculty gathering in front of the library to listen to the Black Lives Matter song “I Can’t Breathe” by the artist H.E.R.
Senior and Black Lives Matter activist Kelzé Riley was one of the several students who delivered emotional speeches and shared their experiences in dealing with racial injustices.
“The feeling started when I was 12, Trayvon Martin was murdered,” Riley said. “When I was 14, Eric Garner, Michael Brown. When I was 15, Sandra Bland. These are only a few names and it felt like every single time I heard a name, it was just a reminder that this world is just not fair to people who look like me.”
Riley said at age 15 she wondered why the world didn’t care about her. She said it pained her that she couldn’t do anything. She said she couldn’t protest or yell on the street because “nobody was really going to listen.” The feeling of hopelessness helped her decide to become an attorney, she said.
Riley also shared her experience of dealing with racism at Bellarmine. “When I came to Bellarmine, a peer told me that I would never be successful. Do you want to know why?” she said, “He said because not only was I black, but I was a black woman.” She said the peer told her that her presence terrified him, and she continued to hear that until this day.
Protests for Black Lives Matter increased over the summer after the death of George Floyd. Riley said that while she sat at home in Columbus, Ohio, during quarantine, she heard more names and more deaths,—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, among countless others.
“Black people were fighting two pandemics, racism and COVID. So, I came to Kentucky, and on the first day of protests for Miss Breonna Taylor, Kenna and I went downtown on a mission, we were met with teargas and rubber bullets,” Riley said as she teared up. The teargas made her eyes feel as if they were melting within, she said. The crowd applauded to show support for their friend.
Riley said, “My friends were being silent on social media after years and years going through training and them saying they’d stand up, years and years of them saying they’d say something and they were all silent, but a few, but a few.” Riley said that if these people are her friends with whom she’s in classes with, then what is the Bellarmine mission?
Riley paused and looked at the crowd and said, “I ask you to be aware, be present, be open, I ask you to think about how much more breath this system can take from me.” She ended her speech by saying, “This country is at war against me and all the people who look like me, so again, we just can’t breathe. Can you?”
Sophomore Kenna Mink was protesting every day, but she stopped going as frequently because of school and work. She and Taylor’s sister, Ju’Niyah Palmer, have been childhood friends since 2008 and this experience made them grow closer. Palmer was unable to make it to the event.
Mink led the marches in the beginning of the protests. She said she specifically remembers thinking how it was wild.
“People were doing this, people were doing that, but you can’t tell people how to protest,” Mink said. She said she remembers thinking the hardest part of the movement was trying to get a message across but still peacefully protesting.
Mink said the most impactful moment in the last few months was when she started seeing kids younger than her leading the protests. “I’m like, ‘Oh, we got some good stuff coming’,” she said, “Yes, I’m out here for myself and the people around me and even some people older than me, but we’re really out here for the younger generation because they are the ones who are going to still be dealing with this if we stop our movement.”
Mink said the expectations she has for the Bellarmine community is to not be quiet in any aspect. She said she does not expect people to go around educating every single person on anything, “just if you see something, say something,” she said.
“Just because you said the ‘n’ word, for example, and you didn’t say it in front of Kelzé, it doesn’t change the fact that you said it, and the fact that you think it’s okay makes it more of a problem because you’re not even recognizing the damage it’s doing to people,” Mink said.
Mink left the audience with something to think about and said, “There’s only so many years, so why spend them negatively? Why spend them hating someone and why spend them just not happy?”
Junior Hannah Flannery asked the crowd to look around at each other and said to “acknowledge that many of our peers suffer from injustices daily that we are privileged to not know.”
Flannery said, “We need to commit to provide a community that supports one another.” Flannery has been active in the Black Lives Matter movement since 2016 and protested this past summer. “People are asking for justice and are getting violence,” she said.
She said the biggest takeaway she wanted the audience to grasp was for “people that looked like her to step forward as allies.” She said, “We don’t need to be the frontrunners, we need to be supporting and following,” she said.
The community observed a 188-second-long moment of silence for Taylor,—188 seconds symbolizing 188 days since her death— as candles flickered among the dark night sky.
Senior student Khiarah Craig said after the moment of silence: “The flame from the candle was keeping the wax hot, and when the wax was hot it ran down because it had a mission. But when the wax stopped being hot and the heat from the flame stopped touching the wax, it wasn’t able to complete its mission.
“I ask for people to put themselves around people who are going to light their flame so they can complete their mission and to light other people’s candles and make sure their candle doesn’t go out.”
The event closed out with the song, “Glory” by Common and John Legend, which was featured in the film “Selma.”
After the event, students gathered and adhered to social distancing rules to discuss the event and their takeaways. Sophomore Rees Jobe said the most impressive thing about Bellarmine is that no matter what the situation is, the staff is always willing to do what their students want to do and not just because they feel pressured that it’s the right thing to do.
“To be able to give people a platform to be able to share about themselves that people like me would never have known is one thing I love about this school in general,” Jobe said. “This was such a big event, but everyone is here for the same reason which is to listen and be supportive and that’s one of my favorite things about this school.”
Black Student Union president Giselle Rhoden, said she did not think that many people would show up to the event mainly because of the short notice but also said she is glad how many people showed up to show their support as allies. Rhoden said she was moved from seeing students come and acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, that racial injustice has been a problem since the students were children and that people are finally admitting this is a problem.
For a predominantly white institution such as Bellarmine to stand up for their minority students who made up 18.2% of the school last year shows that the university really does have that “Bellarmine difference,” Rhoden said.
“Having allies is almost just as important as supporting the cause as a Black student,” she said.
Former president of the Black Student Union James Harwell said that he “finally felt seen” as a Black man for the first time in four years, mostly because Bellarmine is a predominantly white school. Harwell said the worst thing he ever went through was when he was working at an ice-cream shop and someone called the police thinking he was breaking into the store but he was actually opening the shop.
“Police came with their guns drawn and it was the most terrifying thing of my life because I didn’t know if I was going to die or be injured and seeing all these people here who are willing to listen to my story and everybody’s story, especially Kelzé’s, was very empowering and I’ll never forget this moment,” Harwell said. It was his favorite moment in all four years, he said.
He said, “Seeing all these people come here and actually support us is very empowering and made me realize there’s more allies here than what I anticipated.”
Both Rhoden and Harwell said they were moved to tears and Harwell cried at the end of the vigil when the song “Glory” started playing.
Going forward, Harwell encourages students to attend community discussions about race and discrimination hosted by Joe Frazier, the director of the Office of Identity and Inclusion (OII), to show them different perspectives. The “BU Dialogues” are promoted on the OII’s official Instagram page. Rhoden said she believes diversity training for incoming freshmen is an important element to expose students to other points of view.