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Newtown Florist Club rally gathers community members, leaders to discuss racism, steps forward
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Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, speaks Monday, June 1, 2020, to a group gathered to address issues of racism and police brutality. - photo by Nick Watson

Dressed in black save for her face mask, the Rev. Rose Johnson said her goal for the two-hour rally Monday, June 1, was to “create space for the young people to organize to move forward.”

“We have so many more steps to go, but if we can do it one step at a time and everybody can stay committed and everybody just peel off a little part of what they can do. We understand that everybody can’t do everything, but just a little part, and I think that we have that commitment here,” Johnson said.

Organizers asked the attendees to follow social distancing guidelines and to wear masks.

Several nights of protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 while being arrested in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A video showed a police officer pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck, and the officer has since been charged with third-degree murder.

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Signs are written Monday, June 1, 2020, during The Newtown Florist Club rally in Gainesville in reaction to the death of George Floyd and the issues of police brutality and systemic racism. Rose Johnson, Newtown’s executive director, said the gathering is not a protest but a “community organizing event.” - photo by Scott Rogers

Some of the projects mentioned during the protest included a letter-writing campaign to the prosecutors in Minneapolis and encouraging legislators to pass a hate crime bill in the Georgia General Assembly.

The rally brought roughly 200 people out around 5 p.m. Monday, June 1, to the grassy end of the midtown pedestrian bridge overlooking Jesse Jewell Parkway. 

A candlelight vigil to honor Floyd and other victims of police violence has been set for Saturday.

Johnson encouraged people to come forward to discuss projects and ideas that could initiate change.

A number of pastors, evangelists and religious leaders took to the megaphone in the latter half of the protest Monday.

Following roughly 90 minutes of speeches and testimony, some protesters moved to the sidewalks in front of the CVS Pharmacy and around the downtown/midtown area.

“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.

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.

Johnson addressed a question she had heard from someone about what was accomplished “back in the day” and during the original Civil Rights Movement.

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The reverend spoke of the “viciousness” of racism, violence and oppression endemic to that time in history.

“Sometimes I sit down in my own chair in my own house and I just cry when I think about how we made it,” Johnson said.

Aniyah Norman, a University of Georgia student, said she recently voted for the first time and stressed the importance of voting in both national and local elections.

“We cannot allow people who do not care about us to remain in power,” she said.

Norman implored those in the audience to not be scared to share how they feel or sugarcoat the “anger you have, but do not succumb to the stereotype that they want you to be.”

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A youth watches events from the pedestrian bridge Sunday, May 31, 2020, during protests along Jesse Jewell Parkway. - photo by Scott Rogers

Since the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, Norman said she “had to fight to have a space as a black woman” and feels it is time to enact tangible change.

“We need to have a next plan of action,” she said.

Wearing a red shirt reading “I can’t breathe,” Kashuna Storey said 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.

Daijeri Hudson made the drive from Fairburn to his native Gainesville because he “couldn’t stand by on the sideline.” 

“I knew that I had to let my voice be heard, speak from my experiences, just let these young people know that they are not alone. I understand their frustration. I understand their pain, because I, too, have been through racism,” Hudson said.

Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said an event is still in the planning stages to initiate dialogue between him and the citizens. 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.

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