As a Black man, Ashanti Floyd was accustomed to being agonized by cases like that of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old who died while being detained by police in Aurora, Colorado, last summer. But as he read in June about the case, one of many deadly encounters between Black people and police that are receiving new scrutiny in recent months, a detail grabbed Floyd: McClain had been a violinist, just like him.
“All I remember is praying for peace,” Floyd said on a recent Zoom call. “I felt like that boy could have been me.”
He tossed and turned all night after he found this out. And when he learned through social media the next morning about an upcoming vigil in Aurora, where violinists and other string musicians planned to perform at a park to honor McClain’s memory, Floyd decided he had to be there.
He booked a flight from Atlanta and packed his violin. When he landed in Colorado, he was picked up by a friend and fellow violinist, Lee England Jr., who had just arrived from New York. After they spoke with the people putting the event together, they began creating sheet music.
“We worked in partnership with the organizers,” England said on the same Zoom call as Floyd. “But when it came to the music, we basically took over.”
When they arrived at the vigil June 27, the pair performed with dozens of other string musicians, playing songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Hallelujah.” Onlookers recorded videos of the performance, which members of the McClain family attended, and also captured footage of the Aurora Police Department intervening with riot gear and tear gas canisters after officers declared the gathering unlawful. Demonstrators locked arms in a circle around the players.
“We could hear them as we were playing,” England said. “But I knew I was just going to continue playing.”
The incident went viral. Floyd and England hadn’t expected similar vigils elsewhere — but now one was scheduled in New York, two days later. Then there was one in Boston the next day, and another in Portland, Oregon — a dozen in two weeks. In cities including New Orleans, Chicago and Bowling Green, Ohio, musicians and community organizers have continued to host violin vigils — almost 20, and counting — in honor of McClain, attracting hundreds, sometimes thousands, of participants.
“I remember just making a poster for the vigil on my phone,” said Karla Mi Lugo, a performance artist who helped organize the initial event in Aurora. “I’ve had at least 10 different people in different cities who have reached out to me about organizing their own.”
The renewed attention to the circumstances of McClain’s death has had an effect. Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the case. And three Aurora police officers have been fired over photos taken near a memorial set up in McClain’s memory that show two of them grinning and mocking his death.
As the violin vigils proliferate, hordes of classically trained performers are at the ready: Concert halls have been closed for months because of the spread of the coronavirus, leaving musicians out of work around the country. Organizers in Boston, in Columbus, Ohio; and Portland all reported a similar pattern: Events planned in just a few days are receiving swift bursts of response and impressive turnouts.
“We had no idea this was going to happen,” Floyd said. “We didn’t think we’d create these waves. But I guess that’s what happens when you’re a musician and all you have is time on your hands.”
Alexandra Newman, a lead organizer of the Chicago vigil, pointed to two local classical music standbys that were canceled this summer, the Grant Park Music Festival and the Ravinia Festival, as an explanation for the interest in the event there.
“There are people who want to hear music, and there are people who want to perform it,” Newman said. “There’s also a community aspect, and it’s a way to bring out that connection.”
Without any national umbrella organization, the vigils have been put together by local residents. While organizers have tended to handle the logistics, picking the location and spreading the word, musicians have created sheet music and distributed it. Violins, of course, have been the most popular choice at the events, though violas, cellos and other string instruments have made appearances. There has been an effort to include music by Black composers or songs that are important to the Black community, like “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“It’s been something we’ve been trying to change, not using so many European composers,” said Kevin Hagans, a violinist who is Black and Japanese and helped organize the vigil in Columbus. “The issue is that we’ve always had to go searching for these composers; they’re not taught to us like white composers are.”
While many musicians are joyful at getting any chance to perform after months without concerts, they noted that this occasion is somber. “I’m really conflicted,” Zack Brock, a violinist for the band Snarky Puppy, said about his experience helping organize the vigil in Maplewood, New Jersey. “It felt horrible that the first time I got to perform since the pandemic was because a Black man was killed by the police. I missed playing for people, because it’s been so long. But I was really just there because I wanted to help.”
This sentiment is shared by Floyd and England, who were at first concerned that people might confuse the vigils for self-promotion or celebration. “It’s all in the name of Elijah McClain,” England said. “And I really hope that people see that there’s more than just one way to protest. We don’t want this to just be some PR thing.”
England recalled an exchange with the Aurora mayor’s communications office, which contacted him a few days after the vigil there. The mayor’s office, he said, knew that they “had messed up” because the Police Department had interfered with the protest and wanted to “make it up” — to him and Floyd.
“I told them that they need to do what needs to be done for the McClain family,” England said. “It’s not about any of us. We were there for the family.”