Community gathers to remember those lost to, organize against gun violence

Joan Chesterfield of Clifton Park holds a sign and looks on at the vigil/open forum on gun violence within our communities event at Schenectady City Hall on Sunday.

Joan Chesterfield of Clifton Park holds a sign and looks on at the vigil/open forum on gun violence within our communities event at Schenectady City Hall on Sunday.

SCHENECTADY Several speakers at Sunday’s End Gun Violence Vigil/Open Forum held on the steps of Schenectady’s City Hall mentioned the holiday weekend. The time is meant to honor fallen U.S. service members, yet the group before them was gathered to remember others recently lost.

“As we come up on Memorial Day, I think of soldiers that made the choice to lay down their lives to protect us, where these babies didn’t have any [choice],” said event co-coordinator Justin Chaires, of the 19 children killed Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Victoria Charlotten originally came to Chaires for help organizing the event after the mass shootings in Buffalo and Southern California on May 14 and 15, respectively. But, Chaires said to the crowd Sunday that he told Charlotten when she first came to him that more might happen before the event.

“I said to her, ‘Tori, you’re planning something two weeks away. I hope to God that I’m wrong, but I feel like something else is going to happen,’” Chaires said.

The massacre in Texas added more names to the list of people remembered at the vigil and more for each person to speak about. It also added to the ways those gathered to relate to the victims and the victims’ families.

Charlotten, 23, graduated from UAlbany May 14 – the same day 10 people were killed and three were wounded at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo. She was proud of her accomplishments, but she thought about how the massacre wasn’t that far away and how it could have happened here.

When the events unfolded in Uvalde, she thought about her three siblings – two that are seven and another about to start kindergarten.

Since Nov. 30, Sarah Rogerson of Niskayuna has been personally linked to gun violence, particularly in schools. That day, her nephew Eli Mueller was shot in the face by Ethan Crumbly during the mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan. Mueller was among the seven, including a teacher who survived, while four students lost their lives.

Rogerson, a Niskayuna school board member, told some of her family’s story Sunday, but was quick to point out the privilege involved in her situation as a member of a white family, even as her and her family continue to feel deep pain. She said her family has decided, led by her nephew, to only talk about their pain while also talking about others.

“We have to work together to dismantle the systems of oppression that my family both benefits from and that also caused our pain, and the only way to do that is in community with others so I had to be with my community [today] and will continue to work with my community,” she said.

Chaires, an educator in Rotterdam, North Colonie, Albany and Schenectady over the last decade, as well as a father to a 3-year-old son, said he reflected this past week on all of the students he has taught and what he would have done for them, when thinking about the two teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, who died in Texas.

He said Charlotten and her passion for organizing the event helped get him through the week. He was also moved by the group of 40 or so people who gathered with them.

“It means I’m not alone in my mind and how I view things,” said Chaires, also a Democratic candidate for the 111th state Assembly district. “And there’s people out here that want to get into good trouble, and I need as many people that want to see a difference – that are tired of the status quo and tired of having these vigil and doing these things.”

Chaires helped Charlotten get the Clergy Against Hate involved in the event Sunday as well, which helped spread the word, but also brought together worship communities from across the county. They were present in the crowd and on the steps as speakers and leaders in prayer.

Imam Khan, imam at Schenectady County Jail, spoke about a lack of action from officials, a sentiment shared by other speakers, but also shared words of encouragement from the pages of the Quran.

“It teaches us the ultimate comfort for the families,” Khan said. “It teaches that for the innocent, children, weak, oppressed that, at the time of the unjust taking of their lives, they are [with] the angels of God – reaching out their hands to them saying, ‘Peace be with you.’”

Local officials Schenectady City Councilor Carl Williams, Niskayuna Supervisor Jamie Puccioni and Schenectady County Legislator Michelle Ostrelich also spoke, along with Adonis Isiah Richards, a spoken word poet from Schenectady who drew the most crowd reaction.

“These demons can run around collecting weapons of mass destruction and sacrifice lives in the name of their sanity,” one Richards’ poem read. “Now, every time I turn on the news, another mass shooting. Every time I try to breathe, fear, terror. It hurts. It’s shoved down my throat. Yet, fixing the solution incorporates Band Aids on open wounds, and all I’m given is prayers. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Richards shared three pieces of his work, but also encouraged those gathered to mingle and learn about each other, and to think about the next time.

“Give it up for yourselves,” he said, “and…think about who else you’re going to bring because there’s strength in our numbers.”

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