Saturday’s caravan, march and wreath-laying in memory of Julian Lewis remained a peaceful demonstration that his life mattered. But guns were wielded around the event, and one act of gun violence motivated it: now-former Georgia State Patrol Trooper Jacob Thompson’s shot that killed Lewis.
While demonstrators from the Atlanta metro area, from Augusta and from Statesboro were still on their way to Sylvania for the 1 p.m. rally in front of Sylvania City Hall, some Lewis family members were among the first to arrive.
Julian Lewis’ mother, Lindsay Milton, said she felt good about the show of support from demonstrators. But she added that this reflected the deaths of “so many, many” black Americans from the actions of law enforcement officers.
“I never knew that my son was going to be one of them – my only son,” Milton told the Statesboro Herald. “My only son was taken out by this officer and it has put a hurting on me. Anytime I see it on the news I just keep stomping my foot and stomping my foot till my foot be burning. That’s just how upset I get about my child being gone. I can’t even rest sometimes at night.”
Although Lewis, who was 60, was his mother’s only son, he does have brothers and several sisters, one of whom is Tonia Lewis Moore of Statesboro.
Saturday’s event, Moore said, was a show of “support that there are other people out there like us asking for justice.”
Ex-trooper in jail
Thompson, 27, who was fired by the Georgia State Patrol and charged by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation with felony murder and aggravated assault, remains jailed after Judge F. Gates Peed denied him bond Sept. 4, following an earlier hearing in Screven County Superior Court.
The actions of the criminal justice system thus far give Lewis’ family “some hope” that justice will be done, said his widow, Betty Lewis, who put emphasis on the word “some.”
“That’s why we’re having this event, because there are some things that we can’t get and we need to get it,” she said. “Well, I want justice is what I want, and I want them to be fair with it … This event today is so that we can get the video and some tapes, that’s what I mean, and I don’t think the justice system is working in our favor on that, but eventually they have to produce it.”
She said she didn’t feel that people “should have to beg and plead for justice.”
Tapes and justice
The release of law enforcement video and audio recordings from the night Julian Lewis was killed was one of the demands that civil rights attorneys Francys Johnson of Statesboro and Mawuli Davis of Decatur voiced at Saturday’s rally in downtown Sylvania. Their other demand is for Georgia to establish uniform, statewide rules for the use of force, and especially deadly force, as a matter of law.
Johnson, who grew up in Sylvania, told reporters that the steps taken so far are not enough to give him faith in the system when so few law enforcement officers are ever held accountable for the deaths of black Americans.
“Despite a pandemic, in 2020 there have only been 12 days when the police have not killed somebody in America,” he said. “That shouldn’t just offend black people that make up 28% of that 756 that have died thus far, it should offend all Americans.”
The fatal night
Lewis was driving his 1992 Nissan Sentra near Sylvania at night on Aug. 7 when Thompson attempted to stop him for a traffic violation – reportedly a burned-out taillight. Family members and their attorneys say Lewis was returning home from a store. When he failed to stop, Thompson continued the pursuit and deployed a pursuit intervention technique, or PIT maneuver, using his Georgia State Patrol car to force Lewis’ car from the road.
After Lewis’ car came to rest in a ditch, Thompson shot once, striking Lewis, who was not armed, in the face. A GBI agent testified in a May 24 hearing that “maybe one second” passed between Thompson taking his foot of the patrol car’s brake and his firing the fatal shot. The agent also testified that Thompson’s report was not consistent with the dash camera video.
Fear and guns
Publicity about Saturday’s caravan – and the fact that it was meant to draw supporters from the Atlanta area to Sylvania and Statesboro – drew angry responses on social media from white individuals who said they would bring guns to confront rioters and looters.
But the organizers said it would be a peaceful event, and it was.
A few, mostly young, white men wearing various camouflage clothing, with accents such as a skull-and-crossbones “patriot” figure and a U.S. flag bandana face mask, stood beyond the far corners of the protest gathering.
Two were David and Richard, who gave no last names, from Effingham County.
“I’m here to make sure that everything stays safe,” said David, who carried an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle across his body, and many ammo clips.
“We’re just concerned community members,” said Richard, who had a pack, but no visible rifle at that moment.
“I am capable of defending myself or the community if needed,” he told the Herald reporter. “Thankfully, it does not appear that’s the case.”
He said that local law enforcement officers had approached the men to ask what their purpose was in being there.
“We explained to them the same thing I just said to you, we’re just concerned community members. I had heard there was going to be violence from out-of-towners here,” Richard said. “And, you know, this part of Georgia’s beautiful, man. … Sylvania’s got a lot of history, and we don’t want to see anybody get hurt or any buildings, any businesses, nothing like that be destroyed.”
On the other side of the block, at least two armed men, one black and one white, accompanied Johnson as he served as master of ceremonies for the rally, followed by a march around Sylvania’s downtown park area. One of Johnson’s bodyguards had a holstered handgun. The other carried an assault-style rifle pointed downward and also wore a handgun at his waist.
“I’m not counting on law enforcement to protect me,” Johnson said. “I brought my own security. I intend to live and not die.”
He told reporters that on this day, the demonstrators were exercising the rights of Americans under both the First Amendment and the Second Amendment. But he also said he had not wanted to go this route.
“Shame on the people who spread rumors and lies and fearmongering all week that this would be anything but a peaceful protest,” Johnson said. “We have not received it, but all we have ever wanted is peace.”
About 150 people gathered in the street for the rally. After speeches, prayers and music, the names of many black Americans who have died in police-involved incidents were recited. People who had received slips of paper with the names stepped forward and stuck them onto a U.S. flag that was tacked around a piece of plywood.
When the slips of paper nearly covered the flag, demonstrators carried it around the square during the march.Then a caravan of more than 100 cars traveled, escorted by Screven County Sheriff Mike Kile, to the very remote spot on unpaved, tree-lined Stoney Pond Road where Lewis was killed. Amid more speeches, recitations and prayers, the name-spangled flag and a small cross were tacked to a tree and family members placed a wreath at the site.