On Tuesday, around 30 students gathered in Red Square to hold a vigil for Ben Keita, a Seattle-area black, Muslim teenager who was found dead in January after being missing since late November.
Keita’s body was found hanging from a tree in the woods near his home in Lake Stevens. His death was originally determined to be a suicide by a medical examiner, but the manner of death was later changed to “undetermined” because of the height the rope was tied.
Student organizers from the Black Student Union (BSU) and Somali Student Association (SSA) organized the event to honor Keita and call upon the community to recognize his death.
BSU and SSA organizers opened the event by explaining the background of Keita’s death. They specifically noted that Lake Stevens High School and Everett Community College, which Keita attended as a running start student, had yet to release a statement about his death.
“Too many times where violence has been committed against black people, the media tries to desensitize us to the loss of black lives,” one BSU organizer said. Many organizers of the event requested anonymity for their safety.
The brief introduction was followed by one minute of silence and prayer to honor Keita.
“His black life mattered,” an SSA organizer said.
Following the opening remarks, Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Washington Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), took the microphone to discuss his organization’s involvement with the case. He stated that CAIR has been in contact with the family and recently drafted a letter to the FBI calling on them to investigate Keita’s death further.
“We are here to make sure Muslim rights are defended,” Bukhari said.
Bukhari requested everyone to follow CAIR’s lead and publicly call for FBI involvement and mention why their community is affected by this, whether they are a Muslim or an ally. He also encouraged anyone with information about Keita’s death to contact the police or the FBI Seattle office.
“Imagine if this were your mom or dad,” Bukhari said.
He then spoke specifically to the Muslim students in the crowd, reassuring them that their voices matter and that they can impact the world.
“You have a lot of power and a lot of potential,” Bukhari said. “The way you can exercise that power and potential is to change your major … become a media, a journalism, a political science major. So in five years, seven years, you’re the ones writing the stories and you are the media.”
After Bukhari spoke, a statement from Keita’s father was read. In it, his father stated that Keita did not have any mental health issues.
“He was dreaming of becoming a medical doctor and now those dreams are over,” the statement read.
After this, a representative of SSA read an excerpt from the group’s statement on Keita’s death. The representative reminded the crowd that this is a norm for most of them, but SSA is here for support.
Two students then performed poetry pieces dedicated to Keita. One student related Keita’s death to the death of 16-year-old Hamza Warsame. Warsame died in December of 2015 after falling from a building in Capitol Hill. His death was ruled an accident.
“How many families do we need to see grieve?” a line from the student’s poem read. “Our innocent brothers become hashtags and t-shirts some choose to ignore ... How many Hamzas and how many Bens?”
The organizers then invited anyone who wanted to speak to do so. They asked that those who were not black or Muslim wait in order to prioritize those voices. Several students spoke, some emphasizing self-care and others advocating for more events pushing for justice.
“Justice in this country was never made for people that look like me and you,” a black Somali student said.
The same student expressed feeling threatened and upset by the current political climate.
“I am a black Muslim male and I feel like at any moment these casualties can happen to me,” he said. “I fear for my life.”
The student explained that these kind of events are important to have on the UW campus because they provide students with a positive space to reflect.
“We become stronger when we are all together,” the student said.
Reach News Editor Susana Machado at email@example.com. Twitter: @smacha1995