Vigil attendees spilled out of the church and onto the street and sidewalk. Hundreds came out to condemn the white supremacist rally in Virginia that left three people dead.EXPAND
Vigil attendees spilled out of the church and onto the street and sidewalk. Hundreds came out to condemn the white supremacist rally in Virginia that left three people dead.
Joseph Flaherty

'Say Her Name': Phoenix Vigil Aims to Keep Heather Heyer's Fight Alive

Reverend Reginald D. Walton stepped up to the pulpit and asked those assembled to repeat after him.

It wasn't the ordinary call-and-response of a service. Walton was asking the congregation, packed into Phoenix’s Phillips Christian Memorial Church, to say the name of a woman who lost her life to a white supremacist the day before.

The people in the pews murmured after him: “Heather Heyer.”

Heyer, 32, was murdered by a driver who rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“There’s an ancient African proverb that says that if you speak a person’s name, they never die,” Walton explained. “So we speak the name of Heather Heyer. And her fight lives on. We stand united against hate.”

A few hundred people were crammed into the sweltering church, and more gathered on the street and sidewalk outside. They were there for a vigil against hate in the aftermath of the racist Virginia gathering, which began with a disturbing torchlight display on the university campus in Charlottesville on Friday night.

By Saturday, the rally had metastasized into a vile gathering of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and far-right extremist militia members; many toted weapons, swastika icons, and Confederate flags.

Black Lives Matter-Phoenix and the East Valley NAACP organized the vigil at the church in downtown Phoenix on Sunday evening. 

“The reason why we are gathered here is because this is a sanctuary. This is a space where peace abides,” Walton told the crowd. “This is a space where hope abides. And this is a space where love wins. In the end, love wins.”

A series of speakers addressed the crowd after Walton, who is also the chair of Black Lives Matter-Phoenix.

Their messages included denunciations of the hate on display over the weekend and calls to action. Many emphasized the deep roots of white supremacy and its painful history — not just in Virginia, but also in Arizona and across the U.S.

Channel Powe, a governing board member for the Balsz School District, told the crowd to get involved in their local city councils and school districts to demand change to racist policies.

“We have oppressive systems and structures that are dominating our society,” she said. “We need members of the community to start getting involved, and when I say get involved, let’s hold our elected leaders accountable when it comes to policy and practices.”

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton decried President Trump’s halfhearted, kid-gloves response to the white supremacists. Trump, in a statement, made a call to end hatred and violence “on many sides. On many sides.” Critics blasted the response as the worst kind of equivocating, and pointed to neo-Nazi websites that instantly cheered Trump's non-condemnation.

“We had a president who failed to speak up unequivocally against hate,” Stanton said. Trump "failed to understand that there are no ‘all sides’ when it comes to hate and white supremacy,” the mayor added.

Other speakers included Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes; Pastor Warren Stewart, Jr.; a staffer with U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego; activist J.J. Johnson; and religious leaders from other area churches.

Outside of the church, the overflow crowd of people listened to many of the same speakers as they exited the church and picked up a megaphone.

Daniel Montoya, 26, was on the street outside the church to support and mourn.

“I wanted to express solidarity with the counter-protesters who stood up against the alt-right congregation in Virginia,” he told Phoenix New Times. Montoya was wearing a red shirt with the logo of Democratic Socialists of America – Phoenix, and explained that he was a new member.

Of the shocking images from the racist rallies, he said, “You kind of already know all that stuff is there, because it’s always been there in America. But to see it so disgustingly apparent is really gut-turning.”

Tawna Riley, 38, was seated in the church pews listening to the speakers. But she kept getting distracted by an argument with a friend on social media, who was trying to tell her that “both sides were wrong” in Virginia.

“I literally cried,” Riley said. “I’m not really a crier, but this has really been very overwhelming and emotional for me. It’s just really hard to imagine that still in this day and age, we’re still having to fight that type of hate.”

She was carrying a blue umbrella that she had decorated for the vigil: Riley had written, "Braving the Heat 2 Fight the Hate" on the fabric.

The sun started to set and people dispersed after an hour and a half. Warren Stewart, 39, the founder and lead pastor of Phoenix’s Church of The Remnant, said it was heartening to see the turnout for a Black Lives Matter event.

“It’s amazing, it shows that people do care. We won’t tolerate anything like Charlottesville in Phoenix,” he told New Times.

Nevertheless, Stewart added, brazen displays of overt racism of the kind in Virginia are easier to identify and condemn than the racism of everyday life.

“It’s the hidden racism that is most vile and vicious,” he said. "Not the hate marches and tiki torches – it’s that subtle, silent wickedness that we also are afraid of.”

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