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'Straight facts on a hearse': How a striking symbol protesting police brutality came to be

New London — During a demonstration against police brutality on June 6, a distinctive hearse parked at Parade Plaza among at least 1,000 people drew attention.

Flanked with traffic cones bearing the word “funeral,” the hearse bore the names of black victims of police brutality. Cutouts with letters spelling “Eric Garner,” “Sandra Bland,” “Michael Brown,” “Breonna Taylor,” “George Floyd” and dozens more were taped wherever possible on the vehicle.

It was a stark symbol of a nationwide effort to #SayTheirNames, to recognize and remember black people killed by police, to not reduce their existence to statistics.

The hearse is owned by Lester Gee, owner of Lester Gee Funeral Home in New London, who agreed to let his daughter, Lauren, use the hearse to protest.

Working at the funeral home, and having a family tied to the business, is deeply intertwined with Lauren Gee’s idea for the hearse.

“This movement is near and dear to his heart as a black man from the South, and also being the only black funeral director in our entire county,” Lauren Gee said of her father. “When he lived down South, black people couldn’t go to white funeral homes, they wouldn’t allow it. I don’t know how exactly my mind jumped to placing names on a hearse, but I feel it was prompted through years of conversation with my family and others in the community. We constantly witnessed these losses on the news, and each loss becomes more personal.”

Lauren Gee, 33, lives in Waterford but considers New London, where she spent most of her life, home.

Gee said she wanted to force people who don’t understand this pain, who haven’t been through it, to confront the many times black communities have had to come together to mourn deaths that shouldn’t have occurred. She said seeing the names, and the sheer number of them, is an irrefutable image proclaiming police violence a legitimate and dire issue.

“Nothing to argue with, just straight facts on a hearse,” Gee said.

The mobile symbol will be in Waterford on Sunday at Walk for Justice, an anti-racism march from Clark Lane Middle School, where people are gathering at noon. She also drove it to the Norwich Chelsea Parade on Saturday for the 2 p.m. Enough is Enough march against racism and police brutality. Gee said she’ll continue this form of protest in the area as long as the demonstrations carry on. In addition to the New London protest, Gee brought the hearse to a march in Groton on June 7.

Before marching in New London on June 6, organizers announced they had cutouts of names of black people killed by police, and that they would be placing them on the hearse during a moment of silence. Gee said the action brought many to tears; she shed some herself while talking about the event with The Day.

Although the hearse’s presence is inherently provocative, Gee said she’s received only support and thanks for the symbol. She said she’s been astonished by the community’s openness to the hearse and the thinking behind it.

“We consider our hearse a sacred vehicle, and in the moment, during the protest, I felt more value being added to it with each name that went up,” Gee said. “It’s comforting, knowing that my head was in the right place, and I wasn’t misguided by my heart.” 

Constructing and deconstructing the hearse’s appearance is a painstaking process. Gee and her sister Maegan Parrott spent hours cutting out the names, and carefully placing the names on or removing them from the vehicle is another long ordeal.

The most difficult part, she says, is the homework.

Due to the vast number of black people who have died by police and the limited amount of space on the hearse, Gee tries to change the names shown and include new ones at subsequent protests. She noted how the deaths of black women don’t draw the same attention as those of black men — the immediate reaction to George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota and the delayed one to Breonna Taylor’s fatal shooting in Kentucky is a case in point. At upcoming protests, the hearse will present more names of black women and children killed by police than initially included.

“I put in the work, and it's definitely heartbreaking,” Gee said. “There were some triggers."

The hearse is a visceral depiction of intense grief, a vehicle for reflection, a rallying cry. Gee said black people understand its purpose and its meaning without need for explanation.

“People of color just get it. We grow up having conversations about race, inequality, police brutality and the actions we have to take with people in authority,” Gee said. “We don’t know the exact numbers because we don’t have to; we know history. Seeing a hearse in our community may not be a welcome sight, but it’s not an uncommon sight.”

For those struggling to grasp the hearse’s import: “We are all family, regardless of dynamics,” Gee said. “A loss to one household is a loss to everyone’s household in the black community, and it is magnified when that loss is experienced through severe hate and lack of humanity.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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