Protest highlights injustices

Published 12:38 am Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Voices and action for social justice filled the streets of downtown Smithfield on June 27.

Starting around 3 p.m. near the library, more than 100 participants marched down James Street, to Grace Street, down Grace to Institute Street and then on to Main Street, ending the first leg of the march in front of the Smithfield Times building.

Along the way, small signs bearing the names of Black Americans killed in encounters with police or at the hands of people delivering vigilante justice lined the streets.

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As the march began, organizers led the crowd in various call-and-response chants.

“I can’t breathe!” one shouted through a megaphone.

“Get off my neck!” the crowd responded.

“How many?” a woman shouted into the bullhorn.

“Too many!” the crowd responded.

Corwin Matthews, one of the organizers, said rallying in Smithfield brings attention to the issues and experiences that people of color in smaller, rural communities face. Injustice, he continued, isn’t exclusive to people who live in cities or urban areas. Everyone, he added, benefits where there is social justice.

“When Karra told me that she was doing this and asked me to join, I was so ecstatic because I was actually planning on doing something myself in the wake of the George Floyd and Brianna Taylor murders,” said Matthews.

Floyd was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis in an encounter with police. Taylor was killed March 13 when police in Kentucky entered her apartment with a no-knock warrant in search of someone else. Their deaths, and Floyd’s in particular, have sparked weeks of national, ongoing protests that have brought people from all demographics together to rally for social justice and systemic change.

Protests and outrage over Floyd’s death hadn’t subsided before another person of color, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, died after an encounter with law enforcement, Rep. Bobby Scott told protest participants who gathered in the public space in front of the newspaper office.

“As we protest, our focus has to be what’s happening here in Smithfield to make sure that kind of thing doesn’t come to Smithfield,” Scott said. At the same time, Scott praised local police for being present and engaging with the people they’re supposed to protect. He encouraged young people to consider a law enforcement career.

“As long as you’re being policed by people from outside the community, you’re going to have a problem,” Scott said.

The Congressman also gave an example of the power and consequences of voting.

Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general, was formerly a member of Congress. Two years ago, he was elected to his present position. Upon his taking over the prosecution of the George Floyd case, the criminal charges against the officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes were enhanced and three other officers present were arrested and charged.

“And you wonder what would have happened if he had lost that election,” Scott said. “So we need to make sure we have the right people in the right places so the right choices are made.” Scott said.

Although the focus wasn’t specifically on police brutality, it was a recurring topic during Saturday’s event.

“The killing of George Floyd by police was an indefensible murder that we all witnessed on video,” said Smithfield Town Councilwoman Valerie Butler, who is also president of the Isle of Wight NAACP chapter. “The lynching of this unarmed black man was by the very people who are sworn in to protect our community. Police brutality against the black community has been an ever-present circumstance since its origin to preserve the system of slavery.”

Matthews also shared how recent events have affected him personally as a self-described “queer black man in the south.” He reminded the group that June is LGBT Pride Month and he urged everyone to hold each other accountable for how they treat each other no matter how they choose to label — or not to label — themselves.

“To be a part of Black Lives Matter means you accept that all Black lives matter,” Corwin said. “I’m asking every single one of you, before you leave from this protest … think about how you can go ahead and make a difference,” he said. Matthew Ployd, a Smithfield High School teacher, echoed that sentiment.

“As a middle aged, slightly overweight white guy, I do not know and cannot pretend to know what it’s like to walk in some of you all’s shoes,” Ployd said. “I can’t. I have to admit that. That’s a painful admission. What I can do is I can lace up these size 13’s and I can walk with you. I can say you’re never going to do this alone again.”

“I was around 12 years old when my eyes were opened to the racial systematic injustice that happens in the country and how Black Indigenous people of color are disproportionately affected by police brutality and socioeconomic injustices,” participant Lauryn Blizzard said. “I just felt like it’s important that we amplify those voices and make sure Black people’s voices are being heard.”

About 10 people addressed the crowd.

During the remarks, it appeared one person was briefly overcome by the heat, but medics quickly came to their aid. Temperatures on Saturday afternoon were in the low 90s under clear skies. Organizers had planned to rally on June 20 but postponed the event due to rain.

Speaking before the event concluded and the group marched back to their starting point, Smithfield Police Department Chief Alonzo Howell said everything went smoothly from his perspective, and based on his experience with the organizers, he anticipated it would be a peaceful event.

Smithfield native Karra Johnson was also an event organizer. She said turnout greatly exceeded her expectations, thanked those who participated, and added that the experience “was better than I ever imagined.”