Choreographed chants of “No Justice, No Peace” ricocheted from block to block as hundreds of people of all ages and races gathered in Downtown West Palm Beach on Sunday to demand justice for George Floyd.
The protest was peaceful and well-organized in the daytime, and tense by nightfall.
Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, when Derek Chauvin, a white police officer accompanied by three other officers, knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd, unarmed and lying on the ground in handcuffs, pleaded “I can’t breathe.”
Distressed onlookers captured the incident on cellphone video, and Floyd's death sparked simmering unrest in Minneapolis that quickly spread across the United States. This weekend, cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, and New York, were besieged by a mixture of riots and peaceful protests against the backdrop of a pandemic.
In West Palm Beach, police cleared several streets to provide room for protesters to march. There were no confrontations. Activists in sweat-soaked face masks called on protestors to maintain their current momentum by exercising their vote in the future -- to “make the system more accountable.”
Protestors used most of their time for symbolic demonstrations. Many knelt for nine minutes in front of the police department on Banyan Blvd.
As they strolled through the Rosemary Square shopping plaza, one symbolic demonstration served as a reverse reenactment of the deadly interaction between Floyd and Chauvin: A black male protestor is seen kneeling on the neck of a fellow white male protestor, whose unresponsive body and face lay flat on the hot road between Okeechobee Blvd and Rosemary Ave.
A few bystanders at the nearby Hilton hotel looked shocked. One man got out of his car to kneel in solidarity.
Before protestors marched toward the Meyer Amphitheatre on Datura St, WLRN spoke to organizer Gavin McClinton, a 26-year-old Riviera Beach resident who served in the Army. He expected a good turnout but didn’t expect “shutting down Okeechobee, helicopters.”
McClinton says protesters are in common agreement about the overt and subtle race issues still plaguing the United States — the same rallying cry we’re seeing nationwide, particularly surrounding police brutality and what he views as an unfair justice system. He says the manner in which Floyd was killed “just struck a nerve.”
“OK, we get it. We get it. People are racist and they gon’ stay racist. But the real problem is with the judges and the jury that find these murderers not guilty,” McClinton said. “That's where our problem is. OK, if I can't go kill this man right here and get away with it, they shouldn't be able to do the same thing. And I would never want to kill my brother. [as he points to another black man] But yeah, you feel me?
“Murder is murder, no matter who does it or what job they got.”
Asked if any national stories helped fuel this current outrage, McClinton replied, “Yeah. The last 200 years. And that's my answer on that.”
Observers credited McClinton with doing a good job maintaining the crowd. By nightfall, though, according to the Palm Beach Post, authorities believed "opportunistic" out-of-town agitators spoiled the peaceful mood by throwing rocks and bottles. West Palm Beach police closed the entrances for I-95 northbound and southbound, from Palm Beach Lakes to Southern BLVD.
A police officer near the Okeechobee Blvd on-ramp said the City blocked the entrances as a preventative measure. But many of the protestors managed to get onto Interstate 95 anyway, blocking traffic as they spread their message across the freeway.
The freeway was shut down for a few hours. Some officers walked alongside the protestors, a friendly gesture applauded by locals on social media. Nevertheless, evening reports of unrest and vandalism led West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James to issue a 72-hour curfew, starting at 9 p.m.
Amanda Demesmin, a West Palm Beach resident in her mid twenties, said she believes the outrage behind George Floyd’s death also stems from a cocktail of emotions surrounding other stories.
She says she came out because “she wants to be heard” because “black lives have been lost for senseless reasons.”
“People have not been convicted. People have not been charged yet,” Demesmin said. As of Monday, no charges have been filed against the three officers who stood by as Floyd died. “Three officers will not have yet been arrested for George Floyd. So we are hoping that with our stance and with our strength that we'll be finally heard.”
Demesmin said it feels “agonizing” to be locked in her home during a pandemic watching a string of national stories involving deadly and racist interactions against black people. She mentioned the killing of a black jogger in Georgia by a former policeman, a woman shot in her own home in Louisville by police, and a white woman who called the police on a black man birdwatching in Central Park, New York.
“We have Trayvon Martin. We have George Floyd. We have Breonna Taylor. The list goes on and on and on. We can't run. We can't walk. We can't stop. We can't have a play gun. We can't do anything,” Demesmin said. “You can't relax in your own home without being threatened. Time has come for us to make a change. And if I can take a stance in this walk, I will.”