On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of peaceful protesters knelt on the hot asphalt of West Franklin Street in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd before Floyd died from asphyxiation.
Protesters marched in a Social Justice Rally held by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP Youth Council and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Youth Advocates to honor the memory of those killed by police violence and protest continuing racial injustice in the United States. This was the second Chapel Hill protest in two days, following a peaceful demonstration on Friday organized by UNC Black Congress and Black Student Movement to honor the life of Breonna Taylor.
The march began at First Baptist Church on North Roberson Street, where pastor Rodney Coleman led the crowd in prayer. Youth Council organizers Victoria Fornville and Niya Fearrington read over safety guidelines prior to the march, asking everyone to wear face masks, try to remain socially distant and stay hydrated. Volunteers passed out bottles of water as Fornville and Farrington emphasized the purpose of the rally.
“We are here to demand change and our voices need to be heard,” Farrington said. “If you guys don't know, today in Fayetteville, North Carolina, they are memorializing Mr. George Floyd's body — so we need the family that is hurting right now to hear us all the way in Fayetteville, to let them know that they are not standing alone."
Fornville and Fearrington read off a list of reforms they'd like to see implemented by the Chapel Hill Police Department, including reviewing the police department's use of force, ensuring that they have at least six levels of steps with clear rules on escalations, banning the use of knee holds as an acceptable use of force, reviewing the police department's record of disciplining or charging officers charged with misconduct and ensuring that there is no retaliation for reporting.
As the protesters walked onto Franklin Street, they chanted, "Forward together, not one step back."
The march ended at Peace and Justice Plaza, where the crowd gathered to listen to speakers including N.C. Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Chatham, Orange, who spoke about the lack of change Black people have seen despite protests.
“We have been marching and singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ for more than 50 years of my life,” Foushee said. “We have chanted ‘no justice, no peace’ for nearly as long. We have been chanting the mantra ‘Black Lives Matter’ since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013. We have been caught up in a vicious cycle where we march, we protest and we wait for change. Then there are more diversity trainings, racial equity seminars and more task forces — all designed to bring about racial harmony and acceptances, and then we check off the boxes and return to our desks, our offices, our boardrooms, our classrooms."
Foushee referenced President Trump’s adversarial response to the current movement and asked those gathered to do all they could to vote him out.
"My friends, elections have consequences," Foushee said. "I beg you to ensure that your voices are heard at the one place you must not be silent — the ballot box."
Chapel Hill Town Council member Tai Huynh, a recent UNC graduate, encouraged protesters to go beyond posting on social media, matching their online advocacy with concrete action, organizing and, as Foushee mentioned, voting.
“We are fighting two viruses in this nation,” Huynh said. “The COVID-19 virus and the virus of institutional racism. A two-front war is daunting, but this here gives me hope: youth leadership and action.”
The demonstration also included vocal performances of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "Lean on Me." Protesters sang along through their face masks.
CJ Suitt, Chapel Hill's first Poet Laureate, shared his poetry and asked the group to stand in solidarity with the Black people in their own lives.
"It's hard to be an artist right now," Suitt said. "I am tired of my poems being relevant. Tired of Black pain and death being relevant. I'm ready to place them in a time capsule of a world that once was."
Foushee also said that she is tired of waiting for change. She encouraged protesters to demand racial justice in the spaces they occupy.
"This is no time to call for change, but to demand it," Foushee said. "Not to just yearn for racial equality, but to demand it. Not to just seek racial justice, but to demand it.”
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