Hundreds gathered in Downtown Columbia this weekend for several demonstrations protesting police violence after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
It was a hot and humid weekend with temperatures near or at 90 degrees, but the heat could not keep people from gathering at the Boone County Courthouse and Columbia City Hall throughout the weekend.
On Saturday, several different demonstrations - including one organized by two up-and-coming high school freshman - joined together to march through the streets of town. A group of several hundred paused near the Columns on the University of Missouri campus to share words of encouragement, as well as feelings of anger and discontent over the treatment of black people in the United States.
The group then proceeded to the intersection of Elm and Providence where they laid on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds - the amount of time the Minneapolis officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
Among those gathered was Raylene Douglas and her daughter, Zoe Walker, who is a high school sophomore. Douglas said it’s been a fantastic bonding moment for the two of them.
“It's just been beautiful seeing people from all different walks of lives, all different colors come out and support, because that's not the way it was 25 years ago,” Douglas said, referring to the 1992 protests over the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department.
“I can remember the protest 25 years ago, and it was just mostly black people. So, to see so many people of different colors, races, religions come out and support this cause, it's a beautiful thing, and I'm loving that she's getting to experience it with me," Douglas said.
Walker echoed her mother’s sentiment of being glad to share this moment, and said she wants to see more education about systemic oppression and police brutality in schools.
“I just think we need to educate ourselves better, and I had a mother that educated me and made sure I was up to date on stuff," Walker said. “I feel like we should include more of that stuff in our schools because not a lot of kids know. They may know that George Floyd died, but they don't know the other stories like Trayvon Martin's and other people that have passed away.”
On Sunday, more than a thousand Columbians gathered for a Black Lives Matter protest that was organized by brothers, Markeiz Smith and Christopher Watkins, Jr. Smith said he believes the number of protestors may have topped 3,000 as they marched peacefully through the city.
“There’s a whole lot of people here today that aren’t black, and that’s the support that we need,” Smith said. “This should be happening in every community. Everywhere should be raising awareness about black people being murdered.”
Smith, along with several of the speakers, emphasized the importance of the movement going beyond simply marching. The speakers encouraged attendees to leave protests and continue to advocate within their communities by doing things like voting and buying from black-owned businesses.
Watkins, Smith’s older brother and a co-organizer of the event, said the safety of everyone at the march was one of his top concerns - be it from COVID-19 infection or ensuring a peaceful march.
“I do understand with COVID that some people didn't want to come out, but that's why we made it friendly to COVID. So they can come out and wear gloves and masks,” Watkins said.
He also created a civilian security team that was integrated into the crowd to ensure that nothing happened to detract from the message of the demonstrators.
There were booths scattered around the courthouse plaza where volunteers handed out water and food, as well as safety bags that included masks, sunscreen, hand sanitizer and a list of protester’s rights.
Aliyha Hill was one of the volunteers manning the booths. She recently obtained her Master’s in Public Health, and said it’s important that protesters don’t lose sight of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and do what they can to keep themselves healthy.
“So, I'm here to make sure people are healthy during the peaceful protests because we are still currently in a pandemic, but not only are we fighting diseases, but we're also fighting racism at the same time.”
There was also a collaborative booth by Black Lives Matter, Mizzou Hillel, the Boone County Democrats and the Sierra Club that was registering people to vote, answering questions and educating people on Missouri voter rights - including information about the rights of Missourians who are convicted of a felony - who can vote after they complete parole and probation.
Carolyn Amparan, the chair of the Sierra Club Osage Group, said 57 people were registered to vote and many more were given information on how to complete the process online. She added that voting is an important part of any social justice movement.
“In order to make lasting change, we have to elect people to office who are going to make those changes, and sometimes you can work with the people who are in office and educate them, but sometimes you have to change the people in office,” Amparan said. “So, it's really important whether we're voting for candidates or on issues, that people go to the polls and express their voice. That's the way we get lasting change.”
The event included numerous speakers and a march that took protesters on a long walk around downtown. Marchers covered the streets, and, at times, it was impossible to clearly see the end of the sea of protestors.
Once the march circled back around to Broadway, organizers had the entire group — well over a thousand people — kneel or lay down on the pavement in memory of George Floyd. The group chanted “Get Your Knee Off My Neck,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice, No Peace. Prosecute the Police.”
People then flowed back into the courthouse plaza for a few more speakers, and were led in further chants by six-year-old Cali Walton, who was at the protest with her mother, Latoya Hunter.
Cali said she was there “because I've been seeing a lot of people get killed, and I don't like it. So, I had to fight for it.”
Hunter said she's been talking with Cali about what's been going on in the news and educating her on black history. Cali added that, “all the people who weren't here today, I hope they're here another day, and that they just come safely.”
The day ended with a prayer, and organizer Watkins said the next step is to get more organizations, like local churches and the Columbia City Council, involved with the movement because “we want to keep building and building, so the change can happen not just here in Columbia, Missouri, but nationwide.”