A solemn crowd of about 50 gathered in Burlington on Tuesday to honor the memory of George Floyd, a Black man whose murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis last year ignited a reckoning on race and policing.
The event marked the one-year anniversary of Floyd's death and drew elected officials, community leaders and others to City Hall Park, where attendees held a silent vigil lasting nine minutes and 29 seconds — the same amount of time that former officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.
C D Mattison, who organized the vigil, briefly addressed the crowd to reflect on Floyd's final moments, which were captured on video by a 17-year-old bystander and quickly seared into the national consciousness.
"George Floyd should be alive today. We know that," Mattison said. "And what pained me so much for his family — and most certainly for George Floyd, as he cried out for his mother — was the gathering of people who were there in witness, and how excruciating it was for them that they felt they could not intervene on his behalf and save him, because their very own lives were at risk as well."
Similar vigils were held around the country Tuesday as Americans reflected on the year since the 46-year-old man's death — and the movement it inspired. Mourners in Minneapolis laid flowers next to Floyd's headstone at a memorial created last June called "Say Their Names Cemetery." Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City blocked a busy tunnel before police removed them.
The scene in Burlington was one of quiet contemplation, bearing little resemblance to last summer's monthlong occupation of Battery Park, where protestors propelled by Floyd's death demanded change in the wake of the Queen City's own instances of police violence.
As a light breeze rippled through the trees during the moments of silence, some bowed their heads and closed their eyes, while others stared into the distance. Several shed tears.
Zoraya Hightower, a Burlington City Councilor and executive director of the Peace & Justice Center, a Burlington-based nonprofit, spent the time considering what has and has not changed over the last year. How, on one hand, Floyd's death heightened the awareness of issues surrounding racial justice. And how on the other, "we still live in a country where we use systems to justify treating human beings who don't look like the majority very badly — whether that's slavery, whether that's Jim Crow, whether that's police violence."
"We're very quick to justify, and that is still true," she said.
Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd's neck, was convicted last month of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He will be sentenced in a few weeks. While much of the nation met the verdict with a collective sigh of relief, a recent Associated Press poll found that it has done little to improve trust in the criminal justice system among most Black Americans.
Several hours before the event, Gov. Phil Scott signed a proclamation declaring Tuesday as George Floyd Remembrance Day in Vermont. In a statement, the Republican governor said he hoped people would use the day to "remember why we must continue to acknowledge systemic racism and inequality in order to fulfill the promise of American freedom and justice for every citizen.”
Mattison made a similar request at the vigil. Before starting a timer on her phone, she asked attendees to think about "the truth of who we are as a nation."
"Being still for nine minutes and 29 seconds will be hard. Being still even without the weight of three men on our bodies, and a knee on our necks, will be hard," she said. "We are done. We are done dying. And we demand accountability, justice and the respect and celebration of our humanity."