On a chilly Election Day afternoon, junior social work major Alicia Figeroux set up five lawn signs in a shallow arc at the bottom of Staller Steps and set down piles of markers, poster boards and her remaining stickers. Along with her friend, junior health sciences major Jonni Nazarian, Figeroux was setting up for a vigil for Breonna Taylor.
She had sent the word out through her Bachelor in Social Work (BSW) Program’s GroupMe group chat and her own Instagram account. The vigil was scheduled to last from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. that day, but ended up starting late and ending late for different reasons. By the end of the event, 13 people lined up for a group picture with seven newly-made protest signs and a copy of this September’s Black Lives Matter (BLM)-themed issue of the Stony Brook Press magazine.
While the program was short, multiple activities happened within that time span. As students trickled into the event in pairs and small groups, each group started making signs. Once the event reached 11 people, Figeroux made an introductory speech, mentioning the NAACP-led campus protest on Oct. 21 and inviting attendees to come up and speak about their experiences. When no one spoke up, Figeroux made a short prepared speech.
“It’s not a fancy hashtag. It’s not a publicity stunt. This is not a call for attention,” Figeroux said. “This is a call for action, justice, and call for our basic rights and an end to police brutality.”
After her speech and another call for speakers left unanswered, Figeroux led three group chants, familiar to anyone who’s attended BLM events in the past or seen coverage.
“Say Her Name / Breonna Taylor”
“No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
The gathering took a bit of warm up to actually get some energy into the chants. But it was achieved by the second chant. After that, people mingled around, adding detail to their signs for a few minutes, before they all lit their tea lights and Figeroux began a prayer.
Figeroux, who transferred to Stony Brook University in fall 2019 from Monroe College in New Rochelle, separately volunteers as the Event Coordinator for the Association of Transfer Students at Stony Brook University. This vigil, however, was not associated with any student organization recognized by campus administration. All aspects of the event, from advertising to wrangling supplies to setup were organized by Figeroux. According to Figeroux, this was her first shot at organizing her own political event.
“[I was] expecting a bigger turnout…[but] as my first event here, I think it’s a success,” Figeroux said about the event. “ I got a lot of good feedback…[I’ll] do it again when it’s a little bit warmer.”
Event attendee and fellow member of the BSW program Shandola Thompson was one source of such feedback.
“I absolutely love her passion,” Thompson said. “I think that even if I didn’t support [the Black Lives Matter Movement] before I met her, her passion would have convinced me.”
Thompson, Figeroux and junior social work major France Duffoo all mentioned that COVID-19 and other personal factors had prevented them from attending many rallies and vigils this year. Thompson had attended a rally in Manhattan during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. She also mentioned that she had participated in Instagram Blackout Day on July 7, 2020. Duffoo said she hadn’t been to any protests since July 2019 due to COVID-19 and classes.
Many, though not all, the vigil’s attendees knew each other through the BSW group chat, but had never met in person before. For almost half an hour after the event ended, friends both new and old caught up with each other and socialized as the sun set. And as they filtered back home, they took their new signs with them for the next event, whatever and whenever it may be.
“The purpose [of a vigil] is reflecting on this person’s life…bringing awareness,” Figeroux said. “Showing … there’s people that care for you.”
Figeroux acknowledged that in the wake of the verdict in Louisiana, she had seen and felt a crisis of confidence around her. The reckoning over police violence in America had even divided her family. Figeroux and her aunt, a police detective, both fully support the BLM movement and want better training for police and redistribution of police funds to other social welfare programs. Figeroux’s seven other aunts and uncles — either current or retired patrol officers — all are opposed to the massive protests, if not the movement itself. However, Figeroux is determined to move forward and keep fighting.
“We’re not backing down,” Figeroux stated confidently.