When shelter-in-place orders made it impossible for residents at St. Paul’s Towers to participate in the Black Lives Matter protests taking place around their Oakland community, resident Jean E. Taylor decided to share with her fellow residents an idea she had in the middle of the night. “My idea: we show support for the protesters by staging our own miniprotest.”
The idea grew. “Many of us have been feeling rather helpless, given that it is not safe for us individually to participate in protest marches,” Taylor notes. “But there has been a coalescence around the idea of a balcony protest here at SPT.”
Residents began making posters, including large letters to spell out “Black Lives Matter” to hang along one side of the high rise. On Wednesday, June 10, a number of residents gathered on their balconies on the Bay Street side of the building at 5:00 to cheer, bang pots and pans, hit gongs, and unveil their posters as well as a large BLM banner, unveiled along the top of the building.
Spring Lake Village residents also planned their own Black Lives Matter march around the perimeter of their Santa Rosa campus. Resident Council Chair John Buckstead led off the march. “The work of America’s founders and our ancestors, of Jefferson and Madison and Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King is not finished,” he told the close to 100 residents who had gathered to participate. “This is a reminder that their work is our work. We’re still here. We’re still in. You were probably doing this 50 years ago. We need to resume.”
Although protests are not a typical part of community life, the communities’ administration and Covia’s leadership recognize the resident-led efforts to exercise their rights to self-expression. “With a diversity of views in each community, it was important to consider those rights in light of Covia’s fundamental values of respect, civility in our differences, and treating one another with dignity – a difficult balancing act,” says Mary McMullin, Chief Strategy and Advancement Officer. “I believe residents were able to express their honest opinions in a respectful way.”
Along with public protests, communities also planned vigils with 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence to remember the death of George Floyd and others. At Webster House, Chaplain Lily Godsoe and Executive Director Linda Hibbs joined staff from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation who observed the time of silence as a part of their organization’s response to the tragedy. “We joined them, and then decided we wanted to do the same ritual with our staff,” Godsoe says. About 15 people participated. “It was very moving for us to gather as we did in the lobby of the Health Center to honor the collective grief we were all feeling.”
Residents at St. Paul’s Towers also requested a vigil – which was joined by residents and staff at other communities and at Support Services. SPT’s chaplain Meredith Cahn, opened the vigil, saying, “We are heart-broken, we are in pain. And, as members of the Covia community, we are not in a position to march with the marchers, as we are protecting each other from COVID-19, as members of the most vulnerable group, or staff to you. So this is one of the ways we are showing support and proclaiming that we know that Black Lives Matter.” SPT resident Patrick O’Halloran provided centering thoughts before participants entered into almost 9 minutes of silence.
St. Paul’s Towers resident Jean Taylor noted how many people were involved in these events “from helping draft emails, making and distributing flyers, making the giant letters of our vertical banner, organizing and taking pictures of people with their posters, distributing materials for posters, doing the banner unfurling, etc., etc.” Although the media has often represented Black Lives Matter as a movement primarily of young people, “We say: don’t forget us old folks,” says Taylor. “We too have energy. We also believe in what we’re doing, and we’re not going to let up either.”