Marfa vigil commemorates loss of Black lives

Marfa residents lit candles at a Sunday vigil outside the courthouse, remembering the deaths of four unarmed Black Americans recently killed by police or citizen violence in the United States. Photo by Maisie Crow.

MARFA — A crowd gathered Sunday night at the Presidio County Courthouse lawn to join a last minute candlelight vigil in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery, four Black Americans who were recently killed while unarmed.

Protests over the killing of unarmed, Black individuals at the hands of law enforcement have spread across the country, ignited by the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis Police Officer held a knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The filmed incident has stirred up protests calling for the arrest of the three other officers who witnessed the death, and more broadly, police reform. On Wednesday, the three other officers, who had already been fired, were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

In a place where there are few Black community members, Dae Leyva said that was all the more reason she felt the need to show up. Leyva, 22, was born and raised in Alpine, and returned to town from her schooling in San Antonio because of coronavirus.

Leyva, wearing a bandana face covering, held up a sign that read “Justice for George Floyd” and “Please I can’t breathe,” a quote from Floyd and others like Eric Garner while held in lethal chokeholds by police officers.

Organizers Meghan Gerety and Vance Knowles, both Marfa residents, decided to organize the event after seeing each other on Saturday by happenstance. “We have to do something,” Gerety recalls Knowles saying. The friends were both upset by Floyd’s death. Gerety contacted government officials to get approval for the public gathering and had a city official reach out to law enforcement. Knowles connected with Gory Smelley of Marfa Recording Co. to provide the audio set up.

On Sunday, protesters wore masks and sat in distanced clusters around the lawn. The vigil opened with a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech excerpt called “We must learn to love each other,” chosen by Knowles. Two Nina Simone songs played: “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”

Speaking to the vigil and the larger movement in the U.S., Leyva said, “It’s just devastating to see this, but it’s also a good thing that this is happening, we need this. A lot of people came out, it’s good to see that we have support out here.” As a child, Leyva said racism that was directed at her “went in one ear and out the other, because I was so little.”

Leyva attended with her mother, Gina Leyva, who said she was there to first and foremost support her daughter. “And of course, the community, we need this. Marfa, Alpine, the tri-county needs it, because racism does exist,” Gina said. “In Alpine, there was a lot of segregation back in the day. It is what it is, but we can all make a change. Small changes lead to big changes.”

Gina Leyva said she has seen racism and at times ignored racism. “It’s just something that I think as minorities we tend to ignore, because our voice isn’t heard; we’re not heard. It took this to open and shed some light on everything. A young man lost his life for something so senseless that shouldn’t have happened, and it ignited this. This is where we’re at in 2020.”

Concluding the event, Gerety gave a short statement to the crowd, beginning, “I so appreciate you being here in a peaceful expression to honor George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade: four unarmed Black Americans who lost their lives in the past month at the hands of law enforcement or racist citizens.”

“I thank the police officers of Marfa for being kind professionals who serve our community and protect us,” Gerety read. “But the truth is, thousands of unarmed Black people lose their lives at the hands of law enforcement in this country every year, with a very small percentage of officers being charged or sentenced.” Gerety called attendees to action, be it voting or being active in the community, and implored, “Let’s uplift. Let’s be humble. Let’s open our hearts. And let’s stand up against racism and injustice when we see it.”

Area residents placed candles and signs, including Dae’s, on the sidewalk leading to the courthouse steps as the event drew down.

“I think it took so many deaths of African Americans to get to this point, and it shouldn’t have, it should have happened the first time – it should have stopped then,” Gina said. “A lot of law enforcement got away with it and continue to get away with it.”

“I back the blue as well,” she added. “I don’t think Marfa is a violent place. We’re not in a violent place. I think law enforcement could have come out, or someone should have represented the department, whether the sheriff’s office or the police department, just in support for everything, because those are his brothers that did this, unfortunately. I’m sure they don’t acknowledge him, but come show your face,” Leyva said. “We want to see you, we want to talk to you, you’re a public figure, come out and support what’s going on in your community. Where’s the county attorney, where’s the judge, where’s everybody at? I think this is the time where they need to be here and have everybody come together.”

In an interview this week, Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez said his department kept a distance “to let them do what they wanted to do. It was peaceful, it was great and we respect that in every avenue. What happened to George Floyd was wrong and the guy deserves to go to jail for a long time.”

Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez also weighed in after the event. The chief said, “I wanted to go to the vigil, I just wasn’t too sure – it’s kind of that whole deal where you don’t want to ruin it.” He’d heard about the event from a city official, but said, “I didn’t want anybody to be even slightly intimidated by having an officer there, because we wanted to keep it as peaceful as possible and also let people express how they feel.”

Regarding Floyd’s death, Marquez said the actions shown by that police officer were “horrendous,” saying, “It’s not something that any officer that I know of or went to academy with, that’s not tactics that are shown to us at any training. That officer showed a blatant disregard for human life.” Marquez called it a setback for departments that “have gone the extra mile to make that connection and get that cooperation and have that relationship with our community. For something like this to happen, it sets us back.”

Discussing the peaceful gathering, Marquez said, “Myself and the Marfa Police Department, we’re with them right there and if there’s another one you’ll find us right there. This is something that really is a terrible situation and those officers should be held accountable.”

At the end of the event, as Gina and Dae Leyva were about to leave, Gina reflected on Floyd, remarking that his name, his face and this moment would be in the history books. “This is an eye opener for every age, every race. I think that 2020 started off hard for everyone, and this is the half point of the year. Can’t we all come together and close out the year in peace and harmony?”