On Saturday, a crowd of 100 people trekked through freshly fallen snow and gathered in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Billie Holiday Theatre to openly grieve the 2,000 men, women and children that were killed by the terrorist group, Boko Haram, in Baga, Nigeria, on January 3.
Shrouded under the headlines of the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris, the Baga attack has been largely underreported, and those that gather here are conflicted. They mourn with the Parisian community, but also find tragedy that the lives lost in Baga have been muted.
When Gbenga Akinnagbe, the Nigerian-American actor known for his role as "Chris Partlow" on HBO’s “The Wire,” heard about what happened in Baga, he felt discomforted. “I was just really hurt and didn’t know what to do.”
Akinnagbe, a longtime Bed-Stuy resident, changed his sentiment when city councilman Robert Cornegy Jr., asked him and Rotimi Akinnuoye, the owner of a local wine store named Bed-Vyne to host the vigil.
The New York Chapter of the National Association of Kawaida Organization also sponsored the event. Together, they vowed to celebrate the lives lost and to echo the need for visibility surrounding movements that promote the liberty of Africans and oppressed people around the world. Cornegy spent a moment to reflect on the impact his silence would have if no actions were taken. “I looked in the face of my children and wondered what would I say if my children asked, ‘What did you do?’”
Standing in defiance and solidarity, performers applied the full spectrum of the African diaspora to celebrate the victims of the Baga attacks, their voices echoing songs of redemption and poetry of power. A trumpeter used the music of jazz and dancers utilized movement arranged under the beat of African drums. A Yoruba priestess led a prayer, and many striking orators addressed the crowd, aligned with the phrase, “Black lives matter.”
But one of the most powerful portions of the event was an appearance by Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, whose chokehold death made national headlines and sparked debate about the black community and their interactions with the police. Emotional and still reeling with the memory of her father’s death, she read a statement from her phone asking that her father’s memory not be used in vain.
The program ended with a chant, created by Assata Shakur, led by Ifeoma Ike, a participant in the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee. The chant, which is recited three times, has become a battle cry used by protesters from New York to Ferguson. It starts with the sentence, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom.” Ike says she found power in leading the chant. “For me, it’s my responsibility to be active in any type of advocacy surrounding all black lives.”
After the chant with voices still ringing in the lobby of the theater, Akinnagbe announced that there would be a march around the theater, led by a second line band, a tradition widely used in New Orleans to joyfully mourn after a funeral.
On Sunday, news broke that Boko Haram was continuing their path of destruction, this time targeting the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, home to refugees who fled there for safety. The lives of Africans are still at risk under the terrorist regime of Boko Haram. In light of this tragedy, Cornegy is calling for a rally at the steps of City Hall on February 12, and will march to the Nigerian Embassy.
But Akinnagbe remains hopeful, and is fulfilled with the participation of supporters at the vigil. He knows that the work to combat oppression is not done. “We’re pushing back against the darkness.”