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Vigil for Slain Officer in Little Guyana Emphasizes Unity

Randolph Holder Sr., the father of the slain officer killed in East Harlem last week, with Sherry Holder, the officer’s sister, second from right, at a vigil in Richmond Hill, Queens, on Saturday. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Reproduced from New York Times
by Liz Robbins

After the candles started dripping and a police commander wiped his tears, Randolph Holder Sr. walked from the clutch of his extended family and addressed those standing in the back of the vigil held for his son, a police officer killed in the line of duty.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I just wanted to give special thanks to all these men in blue,” Mr. Holder said Saturday night, his voice booming across the Queens street. “Amazing. Above and beyond. Thanks, thanks, thanks.”

Mr. Holder, 61, was once a proud police officer in Guyana, and in the days and hours since his son, Randolph Holder Jr., was shot by the suspect he was chasing in East Harlem Tuesday night, the father has been moved to comfort others.

For the 200 or so family, friends, officers and passers-by who gathered in the triangular intersection off Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood known as Little Guyana, the modest vigil underscored a powerful message. “Unity is strength,” Mr. Holder said.

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The area there is predominantly Indo-Guyanese, the majority ethnic group in Guyana. Late in the week, the event’s organizing group asked State Senator James Sanders Jr. of Queens to invite Mr. Holder, whose family is Afro-Guyanese.

When Mr. Holder accepted, he brought 50 relatives and friends in several vans with a police escort. Together, the groups mourned by candlelight, dismissing ethnic divisions that have long marked their homeland.

“This has become an opportunity for us to become Guyanese all over again,” said Vishnu Mahadeo, the president of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council, which organized the vigil. “One of our own was shot down and we need to be there for each other.”

Gloria Jardine, 58, came from the Bronx to shop for traditional Indo-Guyanese items. She learned of the vigil from a handwritten sign in Sybil’s Bakery and then stayed, she said, just to shake Mr. Holder’s hand.

Officer Holder’s death has resonated back in Guyana, and some diaspora leaders see a boomerang effect. Six months ago the country formed a new coalition government with leaders from both Afro- and Indo-Guyanese parties.

“The country has been coming together, there has been a sense of healing, of reconciliation, of national pride,” said Rickford Burke, president of the Caribbean Guyana Institute for Democracy, based in Brooklyn. “And that has affected the way people are approaching this tragedy — that period of oneness that has taken hold.”

In Guyana, police work is a traditional career path primarily for the black community, and children often follow their fathers into the department. And yet, Mr. Holder, whose father was also a police officer, downplayed race.

“My father is part-Indian,” he said. “You should love each and every one of us, no matter your race or the color of your skin.”

The Guyanese represent the fifth-largest immigrant group in New York (with a population of about 140,000). The Holder family lives in Far Rockaway, even as the Afro-Guyanese community is centered in Brooklyn.

On Sunday night at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church hall in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a Guyanese “wake night” for Officer Holder is planned with food, games, gospel music and family reflections. One of the three sponsors is an alumni group of the Guyanese police force, which had also invited many Indo-Guyanese groups.

It is typical in Guyana to hold a memorial every night until the funeral, which is Wednesday, Mr. Burke said. The burial will be held in the country on Saturday.

At the Richmond Hill vigil, family members took turns praising the police and imploring people to act to end gun violence.

“We are all human beings on this earth — we should be able to work together,” Sheila Johnson, an aunt of Officer Holder, said. “Like we come here tonight, we have to let Washington and the politicians know that this has to stop. If we do not do anything to curtail these criminals from having access to so many weapons, it will never stop. Do not let Randolph’s death be in vain.”

In Guyana, showing disrespect for a police officer is considered an offense, Mr. Holder said.

“You could be arrested for using obscene language with a police officer,” he said before the vigil.

He explained how training reinforces respect.

“After you left the house, the second place that disciplines you is the Guyana police force,” he said. “You are well-trained, well-mannered, protecting people and do all things to make the country a safe place.”

When Mr. Holder came to the United States, he became an auxiliary police officer in the 101st Precinct in Far Rockaway. He was joyful when his son announced he was going to join the New York Police Department five years ago. He also knew the risks.

Officer Holder, 33, had been in the Housing Bureau, Service Area 5. His commanding officer, Reymundo Mundo, gave a brief, emotional speech Saturday about the police staying strong.

Afterward, Randolph Holder Sr. shook hands with officers and strangers, poised and polite. Captain Mundo watched with admiration.

“Ah,” Commander Mundo said of Officer Holder, “that’s where he gets it from.”