A large group of peaceful protesters sat or kneeled in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds Saturday on Main Street in Washington, the time it took a Minneapolis police officer to allegedly kill a black man, spurring a spate of rallies from small towns to large cities nationwide.
The crowd of nearly 400 people then marched through the city chanting, “black lives matter here,” before making a circle back at Main Street near the county courthouse.
“This is not just a black problem. This is an American problem. Social injustice touches everybody,” said Andrew Goudy, president of the Washington branch of the NAACP.
The community gathered for the second time in two weeks to protest racial injustice. This demonstration and others come in the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis while a police officer kneeled on his neck. An onlooker captured the incident on video, and the officer, Derek Chauvin, kept Floyd, 46, pinned to the street, even after Floyd said he could not breathe.
The multiracial and multigenerational crowd in Washington began to arrive at the courthouse about 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
The protest was organized by two groups, led by Washington High School graduates Kurt Adkins and Meg McGill, and Chartiers-Houston graduates Sean McKim, Garrett Garlets and Matthew DeRosa.
“We’re trying to raise awareness and help people understand that all we want is to be treated the same as you,” said Adkins, who said he has encountered racism and racial profiling. “The multitude of people that are not even of color who showed up today showed that there are a lot of people who are with the cause.”
There were tense moments after about a half-dozen men showed up with assault rifles and handguns tucked in their waistbands. A speaker, Jo Jo Burgess of Washington, put his arm around one of the men with guns and drew him into the march.
“Sometimes you have to engage people,” said Burgess, who didn’t know the armed men’s identity.
Washington police said the armed men appeared to have joined the rally in support of the cause. Police didn’t know their identities.
Adkins said there had been many rumors circulating about what was planned Saturday. Many downtown business owners boarded up their windows in anticipation of problems.
“Let it be known we are going to be peaceful,” Adkins said. “There is only one cause, and that is equality.”
There was a heavy police presence, with police positioned on rooftops and drones overhead. A helicopter flew above the crowd, sometimes drowning out the speakers. Organizers had heard rumors that outside agitators planned to disrupt the rally.
Washington police chief Robert Wilson prayed and marched with the protesters.
“I support their cause. The incident with Mr. Floyd should never have ever happened,” said Wilson. “We’re here to make sure their voices are heard, and it’s done in a peaceful manner.”
Burgess urged protesters to get out and vote, and a voter registration booth was set up during the protest so that people could register.
“We need to get people that are going to systematically put us back in the game. We are not going to do that by sitting there,” he said. “If we want true change, we need to get out in November.”
Many in the crowd wore shirts that carried statements such as “black lives matter,” “I can’t breathe,” and “racism is a pandemic.” Others in attendance wore masks with the same messages.
The majority of the people in the crowd wore masks as protection against the novel coronavirus.
“What brought me here is the long history and knowledge that black and brown people are not treated the same in this country,” said Andrea Michalski of Peters Township. “I don’t think all cops are bad. I don’t think anybody is bad, but I think it’s a real issue, and I am truly hoping there is real change to address it.”