By Jennifer Antonik
Hundreds of activists walked past street barricades Friday night in Wilmington as they marched toward a peaceful protest that brought out an estimated 1,000 people.
The streets had been closed in anticipation of the protest, but that didn’t stop the marchers. The gathering was part of a larger, nationwide uprising against police brutality and systematic racism which protesters say has worsened over time. Protests have been seen in cities across Delaware for the last two weeks with activists also gathering in Rehoboth Beach, Seaford, Middletown and Dover. More protests, including one to be held in Milford, have been scheduled.
“If you’re anything like me, you’re sick and tired of the oppression in this country,” a young Garrison Davis told the crowd in Wilmington. “You are here because you want change. You’re here because you’re afraid that the next black body laying in the street will be one you know. Change is coming but it takes all of us.”
Speakers in Wilmington also emphasized remaining peaceful, in spite of heated opinions on all sides.
“I need you to hold each other accountable, not just in the future, but today. We need to make sure this day is not violent. Because when. . . our city is ruined, we’ve got nothing. Our elected officials walk away from the table and they don’t look back. And they don’t listen at all,” Davis said passionately.
Similar sentiments were heard at other Delaware-based protests this week. In Dover, protesters marched along Route 13 Sunday, May 31, ending at the Dover Mall. Some violence and looting took place in both Dover and Wilmington around the same time as their protests; however, protest organizers from both areas publicly denounced that activity.
Protesters were also seen Tuesday, June 2, laying on the Green at Legislative Hall for eight minutes and 46 seconds – the amount of time Floyd was said to be on the ground with an officer’s knee on his neck. More protesters were seen in Camden Friday, June 5, walking along Route 113 from Rodney Village to Walmart and back again, effectively blocking traffic along the way. Delaware State Police officers and those from local municipalities could be seen at each of these events monitoring the surrounding areas.
To stress the importance of their cause, activists at all of the protests could be heard chanting or seen carrying signs with the names of two people who were killed recently by excessive police force – George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Floyd, 46, allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill to pay for items at a convenience store by the name of Cup Foods Monday, May 25. This led to his arrest by officers from the Minneapolis Police Department. Videos of his arrest show three officers kneeling on him while he was face down on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back. With the knee of an officer on the back of his neck, Floyd could be heard on witness videos saying, “I can’t breathe.”
Taylor was killed after police arrived at the Kentucky home she shared with her boyfriend with a “no-knock” warrant for a drug-related case. Police arrived at 12:40 a.m. Friday, March 13. Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were sleeping at the time, according to reports of the incident.
Police on the scene say they announced their presence prior to entering the home, but Walker and neighbors disagreed. Walker shot at an officer when police burst in, allegedly thinking it was an intruder. Police responded with more than 22 rounds, according to Walker’s attorney. Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT, was struck at least eight times by gunfire. She died just five minutes after police arrived.
The impact of local protests
Although these incidents didn’t happen in Delaware, or many of the states where other protests are taking place, activists feel connected to the situations and are demanding a change in leadership, policies and other factors.
“Why do we have to come out here and protest every time someone innocent gets killed? Enough is enough,” one speaker during Wilmington’s rally said.
A study released last year found there may be merits in their claims of prevalent systemic racism, or institutional racism, in the United States.
It was authored by Rutgers University Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Frank Edwards, Washington University Professor of Sociology Hedwig Lee and University of Michigan Postdoctoral Fellow Michael Esposito and published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Data for their study was compiled from Fatal Encounters, “a journalist-led effort to document deaths involving police,” the study states.
“Our results show that people of color face a higher likelihood of being killed by police than do white men and women, that risk peaks in young adulthood, and that men of color face a nontrivial lifetime risk of being killed by police,” it reads.
The study, which can be viewed online at https://www.pnas.org/content/116/34/16793, also indicates that the number of people killed by police officers, regardless of the race of the victim, have increased in recent years.
Some police departments in Delaware have already started responding to the protests, indicating a willingness to support the First Amendment rights of activists.
During a protest Saturday afternoon, June 6, at Legislative Hall, Chiefs of Police from the Dover and Capitol Police Departments greeted protesters with a supportive tone.
Dover Police Chief Thomas A. Johnson, Jr. yielded some of their time to Chief Michael F. Hertzfeld of the Capitol Police since the protest occurred in his jurisdiction. But he said the pair work side by side on many issues and both were there to “actively listen.”
“On the policing side of this, we can talk about a lot of different things. Right now, I want to emphasize the listening aspect,” Chief Johnson told protesters. “I want to listen as much as I can and as exhaustively as I can. . . The more information we get and the more messaging we get, the more we can implement.”
While addressing the crowd, he acknowledged a “pretty significant contingent of officers” who had previously asked him if they could walk with the protesters in uniform while on duty as a show of support.
“They want to just show up and not have you misinterpret their presence and numbers, so they’re waiting for me to tell them it’s okay,” he said.
After some brief hesitation by a few members of the crowd, the officers were invited to march with them during the peaceful protest.
Chief Johnson also invited organizers to schedule a meeting with himself and senior leadership to start addressing concerns at the local level. A meeting was tentatively scheduled during the protest for Tuesday afternoon.
Delaware Governor John Carney addressed protesters last week, as well, stating during his bi-weekly press conference Friday, “People are very angry with the immediate circumstances around the relationship between law enforcement and the black community in our country. It’s a very difficult history, and one that we need to continue to address, to listen to the protesters–that’s a big part of my job.”
Expanding on his comments, he gave protesters a personal message, stating, “I hear you. I’m the governor of this state. It’s my responsibility to make sure that the rights of every Delawarean are protected. And it’s my responsibility to make sure that the relationship between law enforcement and the people of our state gets better, is everything it can be and is conscious of the ugly history of our state and our country. Because without acknowledging that, you can’t really hear or appreciate or understand the anger and frustration and it’s hard to go from that to taking action to address the underlying inequities that persist. And so, I think my job is to listen first and then to act in conjunction with other leaders, people of good will from across our state, to make meaningful change.”