Demetrus Vinson. Jeffery Stephens.
These are the names of Akron residents who, like countless other Black Americans, have died following encounters with law enforcement. They were honored Sunday during an interfaith vigil to confront racism and end police brutality.
About 200 people gathered in the parking lot of Second Baptist Church in Akron to attend “Stand Together: Interfaith Vigil Against Racism.” The vigil was sponsored by the Akron Interfaith Social Justice Group in collaboration with the Akron Area Interfaith Council and drew remarks from local faith leaders spanning Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other faiths.
The vigil came as another high-profile police shooting of a Black man, 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, reignited urgency in the ongoing nationwide struggle to hold police accountable. On Aug. 23, police shot Blake seven times during a traffic stop while his three children watched from the car. He survived but is paralyzed from the waist down.
“I can tell by your nonverbals that what we’re living through today is somewhat silencing,” the Rev. Roderick C. Pounds of Second Baptist Church said in his opening remarks.
“And for the first time since the ’60s, Black folk and white folk are speaking the same language. We’re feeling the same hurt. ... We are saying the same thing. Black Lives Matter,” he said.
The vigil’s aim was to highlight different faith perspectives on dignity, justice, love and unity in the shared goal of racial equity.
The Rev. Haroldo Nunes of Open Arms Hispanic Ministry delivered a bilingual sermon in English and Spanish that spoke to themes of unity and solidarity in the fight for racial equality.
Following a Quranic recitation in Arabic and then English, Dr. Lydia Rose of the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent offered Islamic perspectives on protecting the dignity of all people.
“If someone among you sees wrong, the person must right it by their hand if they can. If the person cannot, then by their tongue, speak up, verbally oppose. And if the person cannot, then by his heart. The last is the minimum expression of their conviction, their faith and their courage,” Rose said of Islamic teachings on speaking out against injustice.
“We need to keep this movement alive. We need to see changes in a system that stops the ongoing killing of our black and brown brothers and sisters. ... We will work until the dignity of all people are secured,” she said.
Each participant was given a card with the names, photos, and story of a person who had died at the hands of law enforcement. Participants also read aloud the names of some 200 victims of police brutality from around the country.
Toward the end of the vigil, attendees were invited to place bricks around a new memorial garden on the front lawn of the church to commemorate a victim of police brutality. Second Baptist Church installed a 30-foot-long and 6-foot-wide concrete strip that reads “Black Lives Matter.”
In an interview, the Rev. John Beaty, member of the interfaith social group and Akron Interfaith Immigration Advocates, criticized Akron Police Chief Kenneth Ball’s recent remarks during a virtual town hall meeting to discuss police-community relations in Akron. During the town hall, the chief strongly condemned the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, calling it heartbreaking and unacceptable. But he also implored the public to consider Akron’s own track record with use-of-force complaints and argued that what happened in Minneapolis had not and would not happen in Akron.
“When he says it doesn’t happen here ... he is just lying through his teeth. It does happen here, it has happened multiple times, and I know two of the families that have suffered the losses very closely,” Beatty said, referring to the families of Demetrus Vinson and Jeffery Stephens.
In 2007, Akron police shot 19-year-old Vinson three times before he died of a fourth gunshot wound to the head in his grandmother’s driveway. Former Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason’s investigation concluded that the shot to the head was self-inflicted, but the family and Akron’s leaders continue to dispute that narrative.
“We all believe it was police who killed him,” Beatty said.
A year later, in 2008, Akron police fatally shot 42-year-old Jeffery Stephens 22 times outside of his home, resulting in a lawsuit against the city of Akron. That case was settled in 2012.
Akron Police Lt. Michael Miller responded to the allegations by calling them “a stretch” and “loaded with conjecture.”
“With respect to the families and what they’ve experienced in terms of those losses, they are tragic outcomes,” Miller said of the death of Vinson and Stephens.
Miller said that the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis was fundamentally different, because Floyd was unarmed, whereas Vinson and Stephens both had firearms in their possession during their police encounters.
“I think the chief was very genuine to say we haven’t had a Minnesota-like incident. And if you look at the context of his response, we certainly meant that response in its totality but ... Minnesota was an unarmed incident ... The fundamental difference in those is that those (two) were armed encounters. ... The context is very important,” Miller said.
Miller emphasized that both cases were “thoroughly investigated, reviewed, and included forensic analysis with respect to the final disposition being determined to be within accordance of local and state law.”
The Rev. Joyce Penfield, one of the vigil’s organizers, said that Sunday’s vigil was a first step in ongoing initiatives of the newly formed Akron Interfaith Social Justice Group and its members.
Beaty is heading police reform efforts by establishing a group that will work to push statewide licensing requirements for police officers. Currently, officers may have been fired for misconduct from one agency but still retain their certificate and can seek employment at another, with no repercussions.
Another group, headed by Rob Kerr, will organize a virtual town hall with Summit County sheriff candidates ahead of the election, Penfield said.
For more information on the Akron Interfaith Social Justice Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org.