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ON THE SCENE: Sunday’s Violin Vigil was ‘good medicine’

Karen Davidson, who created the Black Lives Matter memorial at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid, poses Sunday, Aug. 30 at the Violin Vigil. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

More than 150 socially distanced masked people attended a violin vigil on Sunday, Aug. 30 at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid to honor Elijah McClain, a young Black American who died of cardiac arrest while in police custody a year ago.

At the time, McLain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, had been bopping along listening to music in his earbuds. As he approached his home in Aurora, Colorado, police driving by in a cruiser deemed his behavior suspicious, and, calling in backup, brutally arrested him in a choke hold.

His last words were the familiar, “I can’t breathe.” His death was later declared a “wrongful death” in the courts.

An animal lover, McClain played the violin to stray cats because he believed it soothed them. His life and death have inspired spontaneous violin vigils around the country, including the one held at John Brown’s Farm on Aug. 30, the first anniversary of his death.

McClain is one of more than 50 Black people who have died at the hands of police honored in a Black Lives Matter memorial created by Karen Davidson of Lake Placid and Saranac Lake and displayed in the center circle near the statute of John Brown at the historic site. The John Brown Lives! friends group of the farm and Lake Flower Landing in Saranac Lake organized the vigil.

Jazz violinist Charlie Burnham, far right, leads the Violin Vigil of 16 string players Sunday, Aug. 30 at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Davidson is a graphic designer, and her husband Peter Seward is a co-founder of the Hobo Fest, which was long held in Saranac Lake. Today, at Lake Flower Landing, they host performances, lectures and other cultural events. Seward recruited Jazz violinist Charlie Burnham to perform and lead an all-string vigil for McClain. They and Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!, had hoped to keep attendance at 50 through preregistration. But when triple the number came, they successfully required people to spread out, wear masks and give their contact information in case tracking is needed.

Jerilea Zempel of Keene, a board member of John Brown Lives!, opened the event by first thanking Davidson and Seward, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the John Brown Farm staff for their assistance as well as various sponsors.

“For those who might not know, Elijah McClain, a massage therapist,” said Zempel. “His friends described him as ‘a spiritual seeker, pacifist, oddball, vegetarian, athlete and peacemaker who was exceedingly gentle. The sweetest, purest person you ever met. He was definitely a light in a whole lot of darkness.’ Elijah taught himself to play the violin and performed at animal shelters to put abandoned animals at ease. To me, an animal-loving, non-religious person who believes in God spelled backward; this story touched my heart.”

Zempel then read McClain’s last words, captured by the police’s video recording of the event.

“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people; I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful, and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt! You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”

Zempel then asked why the appeals for justice and accountability on behalf of people like McClain are being drowned out by the din of tanks and guns and tear gas. She said that we hear the Kenosha, Wisconsin police thanking white vigilantes for backup. We see police tossing bottled water to civilians carrying automatic weapons. We hear their chief blame protesters for breaking curfew instead of ordering his officers to detain a young white man carrying a semi-automatic rifle as people are calling out that he had pulled the trigger on unarmed civilians.

Zempel then read prepared remarks by Karen Davidson: “The memorial field asks us to slow down for a moment and read a few facts. Acknowledge the anguish of unnecessary loss. Acknowledge the reason protesters are justifiably outraged. For a moment, cut through the storm of controversy, denial, blame, anger, and cover-ups, and admit, simply admit, these merciless killings are unjust. The carelessness of these deaths is not being overstated.”

Davidson challenged us to begin having difficult discussions about the injustice that is so prevalent in our society, its history and the steps we are willing to take to achieve the highest ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Davidson concluded with, “Is it too much to ask for an America without police chokeholds? Can we recognize the inherent danger to all parties of no-knock warrants? Can we begin to talk about what justice for all looks like?”

The focus then shifted to the music, and Burnham, accompanied by Fred Cash on electric bass, did not disappoint. Burnham began with a haunting instrumental that reflected the anguish of McClain’s death and the deaths of many others featured in the memorial and beyond. He then shifted to a mix of voice and instrumental, and at times calling in those present to join in. He concluded leading a dozen and a half string-players wrapping with the event with “Let My People Go,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace.”

“To me, the vigil is the continuation of a very long struggle,” said Burnham. “It’s a struggle that I don’t think has a final ending and a glorious new beginning. I think it’s something that’s going to be with us forever. I think each one of us has a part to play, including cultural workers like myself. The least I can do is make some entertainment with people gathered together to share their thoughts, feelings and whatever. Songs have been a part of the liberation movement forever. I’m happy to continue that tradition.”

People then began to disperse slowly, many to read the placards that comprised the memorial, some to go over the gravesite where John Brown and many of the Harpers Ferry raiders lay, and others to speak quietly with friends.

“I feel very good and emotional for this performance and vigil here,” said Seward. “I always wanted to bring Charlie up here. He said and sang so much more than I knew about him, but I did know that this was a role he could play at this event. We feel fortunate to be a part of this partnership that made this vigil possible.”

“This is good medicine,” said Martha Swan. “We need this medicine of music, this touch and connection to history, and one another; to be in this struggle together.”