Between 100 and 150 people took a walk for "Unity in the Community" and against gun violence Sunday afternoon, through westside Statesboro neighborhoods that have been the scene of some of that violence.
"The biggest thing that we want to see come out of this is that we've got to shed a light on the gun violence that we have in our community, and we have to be very targeted as far as what our next steps are going to be," Mayor Jonathan McCollar said as the event began. "And so we want to use this as a rallying cry for us to begin to organize our community in such a way that you connect gun violence and the overall safety of our community."
Following two slowly driven hearses, the walkers followed a circuitous route from Rev. W.D. Kent Park on West Grady Street out Grady Street Extension, right onto Butler Street, left onto Johnson Street, right onto Spring Street, right onto Pine, right again onto Spruce, crossing Peachtree, and turning left onto Johnson again.
That was the area where a "shootout" happened after a crowd that police estimated at 300 or more people gathered late on the night of Sept. 22-23. Four people were hurt, one man seriously from a gunshot wound through the neck, but there were no fatalities in that incident. However, as the hearses symbolized and the rhetoric and remembrances along the walk brought to mind, gun violence has repeatedly claimed lives, especially young lives, in Statesboro's Black community.
Statesboro-based civil rights attorney and Baptist minister Francys Johnson carried an electronic megaphone to lead the call-and-response chants and share national statistics on gun violence.
"We walk for a cause! We walk for a people! We walk for community!" was the first chant he called, with the crowd of walkers echoing each line.
"Every day 327 people are shot in the United States; 117 people are shot and killed; 210 survive their gunshots, but they require their families to often leave their jobs, come out of what they're doing to take care of them," Johnson said through the megaphone.
Of the 327 Americans shot on an average day, 46 were murdered, "their families, their communities permanently separated from their light," he said, and another 67 committed suicide "because they had ready access to firearms."
The numbers he quoted match those from the HealthCare Cost and Utilization Project's daily average of gunshot, gun death and gun injury data from 2013, 2014 and 2016. The CDC reports similar but not identical numbers through 2022.
Describing the community the group would walk through as one "most impacted by gun violence," Johnson said he was "clear about a few things."
"There's not a single Black gun manufacturer in this country," he said. "I'm clear about a few things. There's not a single Black gun licensed dealer in this county or in the counties surrounding this county. I am clear there's not a single person who is authorized to sell a firearm who is from this impacted community."
Calls on Daniel Defense
Johnson mentioned Daniel Defense, calling it "one of the largest manufacturers of assault weapons," and said the company headquartered "just down the road off of I-16 bears some responsibility to help promote gun violence prevention in this community and the safe use of their products."
Local organizers will be reaching out to the company "to do more than just sell their weapons, but to make sure that their weapons can be placed in the hands of people who are trained to use them," Johnson said. "A trained gun owner does not kill, not innocent people. A trained gun owner is protected legally by the Constitution and upholds the highest rights of citizenship."
But noting that legislation that would ban "assault rifles" has been introduced in the Georgia Legislature and the U.S. Congress, Johnson suggested that passage of it "will make this community safer."
Statesboro police officers in patrol vehicles blocked and redirected traffic on each street, with Bulloch County sheriff's deputies in their vehicles assisting on some of the streets.
Eventually the walkers passed from Johnson Street onto Johnson Lane, then via Denmark Street, Proctor Street and Morris Street to the Morris Heights Apartment complex. From there, walking east on Proctor Street and north via Blitch Lane, they merged onto Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and arrived at the final destination, Luetta Moore Park, for an indoor rally and cookout.
But the 90-minute walk itself was a rally in motion. A couple of times the hearses stopped and the gurneys were rolled out, covered in blankets and with a pair of crossed roses on each.
"This represents the day gun violence has taken its toll on the life of someone's loved one, and I as a pastor have to stand and pray with them … not just that hour, but contend with them for years because it takes years to come to grips with the loss of a loved one so early," said the Rev. Donald Chavers Jr. of Agape Worship Center.
Funeral directors Matthew Lovett and Craig Tremble also participated, and Lovett spoke to marchers during a pause in the middle of Johnson Street.
"Seeing a teenager that could have been my son laying on my table is no fun; having to serve a family for a pathetic and nonsense loss is no fun.," Lovett said. "I take no joy in it. Craig takes no joy in it. But we stand together here today in solidarity with this family who just had to put their 17-year-old son in the ground from a senseless act of gun violence."
Jabari Walker, 17, died at East Georgia Regional Medical after begin shot at a residence on Ladd Circle the night of Sunday, Aug. 20.
At the entrance to Morris Heights, the marchers passed by a new security camera installed by the apartment complex's management with encouragement from the Statesboro Police Department after several gunfire incidents were reported there last spring. City Council has more recently enacted a requirement for cameras and gates at new or revamped apartment complexes above a certain size.
Pastor Lisa Deloach of City of David Worship Assembly, who grew up at Morris Heights from age 6, said she "has seen some things" including how "drug dealers came and took over" neighborhoods. She called for "fighting the enemy back." But she made clear she was talking about fighting "principalities" in a spiritual sense, and not each other.
"How can we fight the enemy back? We can fight the enemy back by coming together. How can we fight the enemy back? We can fight the enemy back by putting security cameras in …," she said. "How can fight this enemy back that's trying to cause a generation to vanish? Somebody say, the devil is a liar!"
She prayed for "binding the spirit" of gun and gang violence.
City Councilmember Paulette Chavers helped organize the walk, and her challenger for the District 2 council seat in the Nov. 7 election, Lawton Sack, also participated. Both spoke to the marchers during a pause in the street, both calling for the community to work together, and Chavers spoke again during the final rally in the Luetta Moore Park community building.
Survivors at rally
There she introduced another organizer, Trayialia Prince, who wore a "Hope Dealer" shirt, said she had "transitioned from a dope dealer" to working to find hope and solutions and had been planning such a march since 2020.
She introduced Kadeshea Davis, whose husband, Frank Davis Jr., was 41 when he died Nov. 9, 2020, after being shot at his Dunlap Street home. A 19 year-old man turned himself in to face a warrant for murder and other charges from Davis' death and was indicted in February 2021. But the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney's office had the case placed on the "dead docket" in November 2022, noting that the only known witness identifying the defendant was deceased.
"I'm angry because I no longer have a partner, my protector, … my everything," Kadeshea Davis said. "I'm angry because by daughter no longer has … her protector. I'm angry, beyond angry, because my son will never, ever get the opportunity to feel that love that a son needs to feel from his father. I'm angry because we have yet to receive justice. When do we as a people decide that enough is enough?"
Gabrielle Jones, mother of Tameshe' Diquan Jones, who was 19 when he died after begin shot in the chest during a party on East Jones Avenue in June 2018, also spoke. Eric Dyquen Nicolas, just 16 when charged as an adult for the homicide, was convicted by a jury in February 2020 of voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm in committing a felony and sentenced by a judge to 20 years plus five years consecutive.
"A child took my child," Gabrielle Jones said.
She encouraged parents to teach children not to argue and fight but "if you get upset, take a few days off and forgive," she said. "My son was a forgiver."
During closing remarks, McCollar stated that of the last 53 homicides in the city limits of Statesboro, 43 were of African Americans.
"Let me tell you this today, now it is on us," he said. "We've been through way too much to allow what's been going on in our communities, by us, to allow this to stop the progress that we've made."