Backlit by the Jesse Jewell Parkway CVS signs, Gainesville Police officers spoke to protesters who had pounded the pavement for hours late Monday night.
Gainesville Police Sgt. Kevin Holbrook, who heads up the community relations unit, heard questions from the crowd.
Is your badge real gold? No, it’s not.
Why do you get to drive that nice truck? Just the luck of the draw and needing to tow trailers.
Then there were more serious questions asking him about his thoughts on the current climate, particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Several nights of protests in Gainesville were sparked by the incident in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the 46-year-old Floyd died May 25 while being arrested. A video showed a police officer pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, and the officer has since been charged with third-degree murder.
"It's OK to have the hard conversations. That's what we need to do, especially right now,” Holbrook said. “We want people to know that we hear their voices, that we are listening to them. At the same time, we also want them to know that this is their community, this is their police department, and we're all in this together.”
Building relationships with the community has been critical, he said, so that these important discussions can come about.
Holbrook said some may not know how the school resource officers have played a vital role in connecting with the youth and the next generations to come.
"These are conversations that we should be having each and every day, not when there's just a situation across the nation that brings it to light. ... We want to have those conversations," Holbrook said.
Earlier that day Holbrook, other officers and Chief Jay Parrish had joined with Gainesville’s longtime civil rights group, the Newtown Florist Club, for a rally on the grassy end of the pedestrian bridge over Jesse Jewell. Community leaders, including some elected officials and pastors, spoke along with members of the crowd of roughly 200.
The club and its executive director, the Rev. Rose Johnson, held the gathering to give a platform for the younger generation to organize their efforts and move forward to effect change.
“The thing that I want everyone to keep in mind is that this was just really kind of a next step in a long pathway of many steps, because we still have a long way to go,” Johnson said Tuesday.
In the anatomy of a struggle borne out of a national movement, the process will take time, Johnson said.
“As the movement evolves, then you’ll have peaks and you’ll have lows and then you’ll have another peak,” Johnson said. “If everyone is just committed to hang in there until we get to the other side of this storm, then I think we’ll come out as a better community, a more united community and a community that really can stand together in what this notion of real love for all of the people in the community is all about. That’s really the place where we need to get to, in truth.”
A candlelight vigil to honor Floyd and other victims of police violence is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 6, in the same spot as Monday’s rally, the hill on Jesse Jewell Parkway at the end of the pedestrian bridge.
Parrish told those gathered Monday that an event is still in the planning stages to initiate more dialogue between him and the residents. He called on the audience to take their energy to work together for making a better world for us and “all these little kids.”
“What I want to see is real anger turn into real action, because I want to be the chief in a town where a young black man can take his trash to the edge of the road and not be scared,” Parrish said.
The protests started Saturday evening, beginning peacefully and escalating later in the night. The Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police made 10 arrests ranging from disorderly conduct to obstruction mostly late Saturday into Sunday and one second-degree criminal damage to property arrest Sunday night involving vandalism of the Old Joe Confederate statue in the Gainesville square. More arrests were made overnight Monday after a police car was set on fire at a private residence.
Each night, chants could be heard in the streets of “I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.” Some moments were tense as protesters stood nearly face-to-face with officers in the middle of Jesse Jewell’s intersection at Main Street, but there have been no injuries and limited damage.
People interested in civic participation arising from the recent protests can call the Newtown Florist Club at 770-718-1343 or email email@example.com.
“We can’t tear down our own city," said Irene Lipscomb, director with the Newtown Florist Club,, on Saturday before the arrests. "We need to be heard,” she said, and police brutality and racial profiling must stop.
About 50 people were chanting peacefully at about 8:45 p.m. Sunday on either side of the downtown Gainesville roads before moving out onto Jesse Jewell Parkway, blocking traffic.
Police began arriving shortly after 9 p.m. ordering the demonstrators out of the road.
“I feel like it’s important for me to stand up for what I believe in,” said Shyderica Young, one of the protesters The Times spoke with Sunday evening. “There has to be an end somewhere — the cycle has got to stop and needs to stop.”
Johnson said Tuesday that people have called, emailed and stopped by the office to learn how they can get involved. A number of younger people had already approached her about it being the first time they had attended an event like Monday’s rally.
“One young person had already tried to start a nonprofit organization but didn’t know where to go and how to get started. We had a mom bring her son by the office today, and both the mom and the son want to be involved,” said Johnson, adding another man stopped by wanting to help with social media outreach.
Live-streamed feeds of the protests following the pedestrian bridge gathering Monday showed groups in the downtown area continuing to protest peacefully into the late hours. Johnson said it will be vital to look out for and safeguard this younger generation who will continue protesting for this cause.
“Parents need to make sure that they do their part in looking out for their kids who are standing on the front lines. We need to be diligent and vigilant about that,” she said.
A smaller group was gathered along the road Tuesday night.
Some of the projects mentioned during the Monday rally included a letter-writing campaign to the prosecutors in Minneapolis and encouraging legislators to pass a hate crime bill in the Georgia General Assembly.
Wearing a red shirt reading “I can’t breathe,” Kashuna Storey said at the rally Monday she has lived in Hall County her entire life and feels “there is a need for change.”
“We can’t expect change if we don’t get out and vote. That’s the No.1 thing. We elect these officials, and if you don’t vote and you don’t like what they do, it’s our own fault,” she said.
The mother of a 21-year-old son, Storey worries about his safety every time he leaves the house.
“All of those things that are happening elsewhere could easily happen here,” she said.
“I think it’s just a message of unity, that this community, we need each other. We need each other,” said Michael Thurmond, a pastor at Free Chapel, during the rally.
Thurmond led a prayer before the event began Monday and assisted with the megaphone.
“If we want to move something, it takes everybody. When we’re all together, it’s better. It’s better together. It takes everybody sitting at the table so we can understand each other. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. And this is how we fight,” he said.
Jeff Gill contributed to this report.