Dozens of Richmond High students passed out strips of white cloth to people attending the community-healing rally on Tuesday. People tied the cloth around their arms to show solidarity with the 15-year-old student who was raped on campus last week. Neither the girl nor her family attended the event, but she sent a message of thanks to the many who have prayed for her.
Richmond teacher Armando Torres opened the ceremony with a blessing in the four directions of the compass and the sonorous drone of a conch shell.
After the conch shell sounded for the fourth time, there was a series of more than 30 performances, including student jazz-dance groups, indie bands, speeches from city officials, spoken word, stepping, cultural dances and a cappella singing. More than 300 students, parents, teachers, citizens and community leaders attended the event.
Nicolas James, director of special projects for Youth Together told the crowd, “We are here to show the best of ourselves.”
Girls dressed in white tops and skirts performed a choreographed routine to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” The jazz-dance classes started practicing for the event just three days ago.
“It’s part of the healing process,” said dance teacher Vicky Tukeva. “It’s a way for students to express their anger and frustrations in a creative way.”
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin urged people not to stereotype Richmond youth. “Our youth need to be elevated,” McLaughlin said.
Dozens of reporters weaved among the audience to secure the best views and ask participants for statements. Many students wore yellow strips of cloth around their arms to indicate their willingness to be interviewed.
The students said they want to send a clear message to the nation. Kevin Gill, 15, said, “We are not bad students. Something like this can happen anywhere. We are here to show that Richmond cares and that violence is wrong.”
Former Richmond High music teacher, Israel Sims, 40, stressed the need for the city to heal. Sims said of the girl, “She was my student. We are all victims, the perpetrators and the girl. The community needs to be more aggressive getting things happening in Richmond that would allow the youth to grow and feel a part of Richmond.”
Teachers and students from neighboring schools came to show their support. Helms Community Middle School principal, Rachel Bartlett-Preston, said, “It affects all of our community. The victims and the suspects were all Helms students so we share it all – the pains and joys.”
Nine people from Huntsville, Alabama, representing the National Association for the Prevention of Starvation, performed a cappella songs in support of Richmond High. They were on a missionary tour on the West Coast when they heard about the assault and contacted the school to see if they could help. They performed a song in Tongan called, “Chindi Chamana,” which means “time is running out.”
Coach Rich Kinney and security staff Charles Johnson each sang a solo to the applause of students and parents.
“A lot of people I normally don’t see coming together are united,” said 16-year-old Richmond High student Stephanie Avendano. “Students and teachers are hand-in-hand helping each other move forward.”
Parent Isabel Mena, 50, said she came to support the girl’s parents.
“It affects me as a parent very much,” Mena said, “because I have two girls and two boys and I don’t ever want them to be in that situation.”
By the time Pastor Jim Wheeler of the girl’s church read a statement from her, the field was aglow with orange light from the candles.
“We realized people are angry about this,” Pastor Wheeler read. “Let the anger cause change, change that is necessary to keep our children, our neighbors, and our friends safe.”
Brittney Wiley, 15, described the event as, “spiritual, enlightening, soothing, and joyful.” Wiley said she imagines her friend, the girl for whom all these people came together, looking around and saying: “Are you serious? You guys did all this for me?”