Former Southampton resident and Shinnecock Indian Nation member Andrina Wekontash Smith is daring you to be uncomfortable.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the 34-year-old spoke poignantly to a crowd of hundreds in Southampton Village Thursday morning during a vigil for the black man killed by Minnesota police last month about issues of racism and inequality that have been longstanding for too many generations.
“That discomfort that you feel is a festering wound left too long unaddressed, the legacy of a violent system that began with the looting of indigenous lands and was built on the looting of black bodies,” she said. “The success of America hinged on the denial of indigenous and black Americans’ pain. When this system is working its best, it leaves white Americans ill-equipped to hold capacity for our suffering. While that bubble of white privilege might shield you personally from its violence, you are no longer shielded from its visibility.”
Hundreds of protests and memorials have occurred nationwide in the week following the 46-year-old’s death. Floyd was arrested by Minnesota police after a deli employee accused him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill and being publicly drunk. Less than 20 minutes later, Floyd was pinned to the ground by four police officers, with one kneeling on his neck. Floyd was killed by that officer, who was one of several who heard the man calling for help, saying he couldn’t breathe.
“I am thrilled that so many of you are offering support, but when the moment comes that this conversation becomes too tough, you can turn off the TV. If you choose, you can ignore this plight,” Wekontash Smith said. “We are far stronger together than we could ever dream to be apart, however, when we are apart, I need you to continue to carry the torch while venturing into those rooms that I cannot enter. It is no longer acceptable to stay silent. I need your voices in those rooms and championing our rights to those that will not listen.”
Words of love and prayer filled Agawam Park before a solidarity walk, where Floyd’s name was repeated, along with chants of “No justice, no peace.”
Rev. Sarah Bigwood, of the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton, grew up in Minneapolis, MN. She said she is most fearful for the children.
“I’m afraid for them. I’m sad for the children I worked with there, because this is the world that they’re living in, the violence against their lives” she said. “The people they love are facing that every day . . . How they live with that kind of trauma is devastating to themselves and their community.”
“We need to share our collective grief, share our specific grief, and come together as a community,” she continued. “I am outraged at a system that would allow this to happen. I am scared for my friends and my family and my former neighbors, all of whom are trying to deal with and cope with all of the events of the last week as they unfolded.”
As a tribal member living in the Hamptons, Wekontash Smith said she knows those internal and external battles and that systematic failure all too well.
“Am I supposed to fear walking down the streets of my ancestors’ neighborhood because the sight of me makes someone uncomfortable?” she asked. “I look around and I see friends who I’ve grown up with, both black and white, with their children. I see friends who are Democrats and friends who are Republicans. I see friends who are police officers. This is not a partisan fight. This is a fight for our humanity. I’m also worried about the legacy we our leaving our children. I know we can do better.”
It’s also a fight Mt. Sinai resident Skyler Johnson is hoping to take on. The 19-year-old is running for a state Senate seat this year.
“We’ve seen these brutal accounts of racism, of murder, take place nationwide,” he said. “But I loved this vigil. I loved the ceremony because it really shows the people of Southampton, the people of the Island care about these people, care about what’s happening nationwide, and will not only not stand for it, but stand in remembrance of those lives lost.”
He said his ultimate goal is to help people, through these struggles and others.
“We don’t have people in office that pass proper social reform, that will pass proper criminal justice reform, and that’s what we need,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping, if elected, I can pass proper reform to make sure these things don’t happen on our Island, to make sure New York is a strong state, has progressive ideals, and can pass reforms that really help people.”
Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren said he looked to make plenty of changes when elected to office a year ago, but soon realized things weren’t going to go quite as planned.
“When I was elected mayor, I thought I could come in and quickly make the changes that we said we wanted to, but it takes more than just one individual and all layers of all levels of government,” he said. “I’m committed to institutional systemic change. It’s hard to articulate how every single night I go to bed, every single morning I wake up fired up to make those changes. There are centuries of racism. This is just going to inspire me even more and empower me and everyone else more.”
The mayor said he finds it important to understand other people’s perspectives and stand in their shoes. Denise Smith-Meacham, who helped organize the event, took it a step further.
“We’ve protested, but it’s about what we’re going to do after this,” she said. “We saw what happened and enough is enough. You get to a point where you’ve got to do something.”
Wekontash Smith echoed that call for change. She asked her friends in the Hamptons to think twice about the world around them.
“When you enter those country clubs where the only people of color you see are the help, I need you to confront those using euphemistic speech that prevents people like me and people who look like me in this country from excelling,” she said. “Hope is not lost, but I’m getting scared.”
Nancy Stevens-Smith said she’s just one of many voices who should speak up for injustice, saying it’s time Americans finally stand up for what the Pledge of Allegiance and our patriotic songs really signify.
“I’m in support of justice for all in America and standing up for the injustice that’s been placed on African Americans for over 400 years — from the time we were brought here on ships to this day, unfortunately,” she said. “We need to listen, start a conversation with someone, and be ready to accept the truth for the truth.”
Wekontash Smith said there will be growing pains, but what the world will receive in turn is acceptance.
“Over the last week, my white allies have shown up for me in monumental gestures of solidarity,” she said. “The message of today is one of love, and doses of love come in a variety of forms. Today, I give you a dose of tough love, and I ask you to stay with me throughout this, because I need you in this fight. One of the definitions of a vigil is the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary. And customarily, when we’ve been here before, we have fallen asleep. We have marched, we have hash-tagged, and yet we’ve always returned to that slumber. This time, however, it’s hitting differently. This year has ushered in a clarity of 20/20 vision revealing elements of our society that have long been a blind spot to the white gaze.”
Christine Heeren contributed reporting.