PHOTO BY BOB ROCHE
Seven-year-old Ayanna Lowe pours water into the tree of life at Bethel AME Church on Tuesday night.
BY BRIDGET TURCOTTE
LYNN — The city is trying to bridge the divide between the community and the police through conversation.
The Essex County Community Organization (ECCO) held a community vigil and training at Bethel AME Church Tuesday night. Religious leaders, residents, police officers and children came together to discuss what needs to be done to end bias-related violence.
ECCO is an interfaith network of congregations throughout the county with a mission to work for racial justice. The group has been working for about a year.
“We work together and build trust together,” said Alexandra Pineros Shields, director. “As we have met more with police, we have learned about the challenges police face. We’ve learned how the community feels about issues of racial injustice. The dialogue has helped a lot.”
The gathering was held in the wake of last week’s fatal shootings of two black men in St. Paul and Baton Rouge, reportedly resulting from excessive police force, and the following murder of five police officers during a protest.
It was attended by people of different faiths, ethnicities, races and genders. Religious leaders led the discussion, including Rev. Andre Bennett of Zion Baptist Church, Rev. Jane Gould of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and Diana Cunningham from Bethel AME. Others, including those from other communities, participated in readings.
Deputy Leonard Desmarais of the Lynn Police Department participated in the ceremony. He said it’s important for police to have positive contact with the community because residents are often only exposed to negative contact, when police are called to make an arrest or take other action.
“When police pull up, sometimes people are expecting what they see or read about on social media and in the movies,” he said. “But, we’re there to see what is actually presented to us and what’s really going on. We need to slow things down and find out what is happening to respond appropriately.”
Of the six Lynn officers who attended the ceremony, Desmarais said they probably knew all of the people from Lynn.
“The large majority of our department is made up of Lynn kids,” he said. “We do know a lot of the community, but positive contact is important. People do want to know the police. If there’s a situation and we already know the person and they already know us, it’s better all around.”
The sanctuary was packed with attendees who stood in line to get inside. They participated in an exercise during which they talked to a stranger with a different background about what action the community needs to take and how they can contribute.
The participants wrote their answers on a sticky note and placed it on a wooden Tree of Life sign created by RAW Art Works.
Roy Rhodes, who has been attending the church for 40 years, said he has never seen it so full for a community event.
Diane Smith of Lynn said she felt it was important to attend the vigil to find a way to increase protection for all people, no matter his or her race.
“Everyone is from different cultures, trying to learn about each other,” Smith said. “It has been awesome to see everybody come together and start to show love. As one community, we should all try to help each other and support each other.”
Vanessa Charles of Lynn said she wants to see the “race game” come to an end and instead for everyone to try to figure out why something has happened.
“At the end of the day, people are more concerned with having their child come back home,” she said.
Charles said she believes that if everyone does their part, it will be a safer world.
“You’re supposed to put your hands on the wheel when you’re pulled over,” she said. “If cops have any issues, they should have somebody to talk to about them. They have stressful jobs and a lot of police come from military backgrounds.”
Margaret Eckman, who lives in Swampscott, said she was excited to hear so many different opinions.
“We’re talking instead of fighting,” Eckman said. “I love that we have been asked to find someone we don’t know. I want to hear what other people have to say and learn from it.”
The vigil was followed by a training provided by Rachel Godsil, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law. She talked about understanding the origins and effects of implicit bias to learn how to eliminate it.
“We do what we are used to doing, even if our conscious mind knows it’s wrong,” Godsil said.
Bridget Turcotte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte.