This article first appeared in The Pilot on June 5, 2020.
Hundreds of people knelt for nearly nine minutes Wednesday in downtown Southern Pines in honor of George Floyd, whose slaying in police custody has sparked a national outcry.
The silent tribute was timed to last the approximately 8 minutes and 46 seconds that a police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck before the unarmed black man died in a Minneapolis street on Memorial Day.
Floyd, who had no pulse for three of those minutes, was born in nearby Fayetteville. His body will return to North Carolina on Saturday for a memorial service in Raeford.
Billed as a peace vigil, the downtown demonstration was organized by the Moore County NAACP. O’Linda Watkins, the group’s president, called on the droves of masked mourners in attendance to “move from anger to action.”
“My ancestors, slaves in the Cape Fear Valley, were property,” Watkins said. “Until you get to know us as human beings (…) we can never have the honest talk and the construction actions needed to dismantle the racist mentality that many police still have.”
Derek Chauvin, the officer seen holding down Floyd in a cellphone video made by a teenager, is charged with second-degree murder. The three other law enforcers at the scene during Floyd’s death are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, according to a database assembled by The Washington Post. The database, which comprises reports of fatal shootings, does not include deadly encounters like the ones involving Floyd and Eric Garner, whose 2014 death in a chokehold has been widely compared with Floyd’s killing.
Both Garner and Floyd pleaded for air in the minutes before they died. Their cries of “I can’t breath” were printed on several mourners’ signs and T-shirts during the vigil.
Organizers distributed flyers outlining a dozen ways in which residents can rally for systematic change. Some of the recommendations include petitioning for the banning of “knee holds” by police and demanding to see disciplinary records for law enforcers accused of misconduct.
Carol Haney, mayor of Southern Pines, was one of several community leaders who spoke during the event. She informed the crowd of a local proclamation inspired by Floyd’s death.
“In part, it reads that George Floyd lost his life in a despicable act which has led to protests with some, like this, peaceful,” Haney said. “It states what we support, what we denounce and what we will not tolerate.”
The proclamation, approved later that evening by the Southern Pines Town Council, declares June 6 a “day of remembrance” for Floyd.
The peaceful protests continued when a procession of 379 vehicles traveled Thursday from the park beside the National Guard Armory in Southern Pines. The caravan, which moved through Aberdeen and Pinehurst before returning to the park, was organized by the N.C. Impact Coalition.
Lakisha Womack, a local educator who co-founded the coalition with her relatives Lanisha Bailey, Shirella Horton and Charles Taylor in 2016, said the group felt a caravan would minimize the protestors’ risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“We want to show the right way to address the issue,” Womack said in a phone interview. “With this being a retirement community, we can’t afford to have COVID-19 run rampant here.”
People older than 64 are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said the disease is causing a “disproportionate impact on communities of color.” Shortly before the caravan left Southern Pines, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order directing local health departments to “provide targeted measures to help communities of color that have been affected by the pandemic.”
The caravan was escorted by police, and law enforcers were stationed to redirect traffic at various points along the 12-mile route. In Pinehurst, several members of the police department were seen kneeling in solidarity with the protestors.
“In this trying time for our nation, the Village of Pinehurst government is committed to stand for justice and equality for all residents and for our fellow citizens across the United States,” the village said in a statement shared on social media ahead of the protest. “All of our staff, including our exceptional police department, are committed to dignity, safety and a high quality of life for all people without regard for color.”
Addressing the large audience that assembled at the park after the caravan returned to Southern Pines, Horton said the protest was the “largest car procession ever in the history of Moore County.”
“Imagine what we can do if we continue to work together, if we keep this same energy,” she said. “Imagine the changes we can make.”
Earlier at the park, the protestors heard remarks from local mothers whose children had perished in altercations with police. Charlene Ross, mother of Shonquell Barrett, pressed a microphone against her phone as it played audio from the night her son was killed after a 10-minute vehicle chase in June 2018.
In interviews with The Pilot and other news organizations, Ross has said that Barrett was about to pull over when a state trooper initiated the PIT maneuver that ended his life. She has spent the past two years advocating for a law named after Barrett that would prohibit police from using PIT maneuvers to immobilize fleeing suspects.
“I will not be pushed aside,” Ross said Thursday to applause from protesters. “I have a voice, I have power and I will be heard. I did not give up on my son while he was living, and I will not give up on him while he’s dead.”
The Moore County Sheriff’s Office on Friday announced it would help provide security during Floyd’s memorial service in Raeford. In a statement released on the community notification platform Nixle, Sheriff Ronnie Fields praised the “concerned and caring citizens” who participated in the local protests.
“The events that have occurred across our country over the last two weeks concern me greatly. And sicken me!” Fields wrote. “The actions of the rogue police officers on the scene in Minnesota were unnecessary, unwarranted, and criminal.
“I pray that justice will be served, and the Floyd family will find peace.”
Fields went on to condemn the violent riots that have erupted in Minneapolis and other cities.
“The actions of the thousands of people across the country who have chosen violence as a means of their expression of frustration concerns me equally,” Fields said. “Please know that should the criminal element appear in Moore County, the members of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office will be here to protect and serve you, our citizens.”
At least 17 people have died nationally in protests sparked by Floyd’s death. Some of the victims include protestors killed by police and law enforcers shot by protesters.
But Fields noted that the demonstrations held in Moore County have been “totally peaceful.”
“Over the last two days, our citizens have organized and participated in events where their First Amendment rights were recognized and supported,” Fields said, adding he is “so proud to call this place home.”