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Unity through protest
'Silent No More' marchers ask for justice
Between 200 and 300 people gathered at the Bulloch County Courthouse for Saturday's "Silent No More" protest and march for social justice. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

In the wake of tragic shootings last week in Texas, Louisiana and Minnesota, hundreds of people didn't let oppressive heat and humidity on Saturday deter them from coming together in downtown Statesboro to peacefully march and pray for healing, unity and justice for all.

Beginning at the Agape Worship Center on West Grady Street, the large group chanted, held signs and walked to the Bulloch County Courthouse, marching around the courthouse six times. At that point, Francys Johnson, one of the local organizers of the event and president of the Georgia NAACP, halted the marchers and said: "We've walked around the courthouse six times. We need divine intervention. If we don't have some divine intervention, this country is over."

Referencing the story in the Bible found in the book of Joshua when Joshua marched the Israelites around the walls of Jericho seven times, the group walked around one more time, and Johnson said: "We've marched around this courthouse seven times. In the Scriptures, after seven times, the walls fell.

"I could feel walls falling," he said. "No one interfered with us. No one asked for ID. No one asked us if we cleaned houses for a living or ran this town. We are all human beings. Our lives matter."

The Bulloch County NAACP led Saturday's "Silent No More" protest march under the direction of Johnson, local attorney Jonathan McCollar and Bulloch County NAACP President Pearl Brown. The local event joined similar ones held over the weekend across Georgia and the nation in reaction to events involving the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota; and five police officers in Dallas.

McCollar told the gathered crowd about one of the inspirations behind the Statesboro march.

"We're here because of the vision of a child," he said. "When the children of our community are calling out for help, it's time for change."

McCollar paraphrased a verse from the Bible, Isaiah 11:6, when he added, "It will be a child that will lead the way."

The young voice he spoke of was 16-year-old Chasity McDuffie, a rising senior at Statesboro High School. McDuffie said she watched the news this week of the disturbing happenings across the nation and wanted to do something about it.

She first posted something on her Facebook page, then contacted the local NAACP. After a suggestion from her aunt, she contacted McCollar.

Space to protest and grieve

Johnson said the march was fundamentally about giving people space to protest, to vent their frustrations and to grieve. They wanted to raise their voices about the need to stop racial profiling, to provide greater racial and economic equality, to point out disparities in the judicial system and to urge real social change.

"There has to be change, but that change cannot come at the end of the barrel of a gun," Johnson said.

Though Johnson listed a host of grievances with local and nationwide judicial and law enforcement systems, he was quick to point out concerns for police officers as well.

"They're people who just want to serve and protect and get home at the end of the day," he said. "Our police are civilian police officers, not members of the military. They have to largely be guardians and sometimes have to be warriors. They command the front line in our failed war on drugs, of a failing economy. We've failed the working and lower class.

"Poor, unemployed, frustrated, beleaguered Americans that have greater access to weapons than fruits and vegetables render our community less safe and endangers our police officers," he continued. "We can do better."

Pastor Donald Chavers led a prayer just before the marchers started their journey.

"Lord, you are our strength," he said. "We pray now that as we come with heavy hearts and questions, that we leave this place and stand for justice. We leave in peace. Not just a reaction. I pray our hearts be on the side of love. Let the world know that as we march these streets, it's not OK to take people's lives. Send a strong and powerful signal to the world that it's not OK to hate."

Then, with chants of "Black lives matter," "No justice, no peace," "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" and "Hands up - don't shoot," the protesters of various ages and races marched peacefully to the courthouse. Law enforcement officers blocked roads and directed traffic to ensure safety.

After leaving the courthouse, the group walked down South Main Street, again chanting, and made its way to the police station, escorted and followed by police vehicles.

There, Deputy Chief Rob Bryan, who is serving as interim police chief, and other officers met the protesters on the steps of the police building on West Grady Street.

Bryan expressed his appreciation to the attendees for their deliberate pursuit of a peaceful protest and said: "Our goal today was to make sure everybody could exercise their constitutional right as safely as possible."

Prayers for hope

Prior to the march, Pastor Wayne Williams implored the marchers not to confuse hurt for hate.

"We want African-American men to live. We want police officers to live," he said. "We're advocates for commonsense police policy reform. We have people dying innocently. We're not here to advocate hate. We stand up with the rest of the country, not just sitting by. We are protesting against racial profiling. Don't misunderstand because we are hurting, disappointed and grieving, don't equate that with hate.

"We need to put some shoes on our faith in God," he continued. "Use our God-given and citizen rights to protest. Put your foot down for something."

Bulloch NAACP President Brown said: "My heart has been heavy all week. I have been reading and praying. I know there's a verse in the Bible that says, 'If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray ...' "

She walked through the crowd and pointed and continued: "The same thing I want is the same thing you want, and you want. All of us want justice. We want to live, to grow up to be what God wants us to be. Black men are being killed and locked up, and that has to change. We have to get together, pray, bring about change."

Johnson said that, for too long in this country, there has been a "statewide resistance to a malignant cancerous sickness, a sickness of hate; a division of privilege that makes some of us locked away from opportunity.

"There are too many black and brown bodies laying in the street, bleeding," he said. "But do not mistake this for a black versus white problem. This is a problem of hate. All lives should matter, but until black lives matter, all lives won't."

Johnson also said that until the methods of policing are fixed and law enforcement departments are given the funding and training they deserve, the judicial system cannot be fixed.

"We're here because police lives matter as well," he said.

McCollar reminded the crowd that "a child" started the local protest and said the march needed to take place for the children of the community.

He then referenced the Bible: "It says, 'How can you love me whom you have not seen and not love your neighbor who you see every day?'

"It's time for a change," he said. "When you do what's right by the people, that's how a community will thrive."

At the police building, Johnson asked to pray for Bryan and his fellow officers.

"Perhaps there is a breaking in the darkness with a little light, even if that's the little light of Statesboro," Johnson said. "If we don't let that light go out and put it in our workplace and in our schools and in our churches and in our walk of life, then we will let a better light shine in this country that the darkness cannot confound.

"We're grateful that you bless our police officers as they serve and protect the citizens of this community," he said. "We pray for the men and women that have worked and served faithfully in this department. May God bless this country to know that better days are yet to come."


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