Peaceful Protesters Call for Justice, End to Racism

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – More than 500 people gathered downtown today to protest the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man whose life flashed and passed before the nation, begging to breathe as a police officer’s knee pinned Floyd’s neck to the street for more than eight minutes.

Youngstown Police Chief Robin Lees and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan were in the front line of protesters who walked a short distance down Wick Avenue to the Mahoning County Courthouse to chants of “Black lives matter.”

Under sunny skies, young and old carried signs and peacefully expressed a need for change when it comes to African Americans being killed at the hands of law enforcement. The protest was in stark contrast to violent and disruptive riots that have broken out throughout the nation the last few nights that resulted in vandalism, fires, arrests and widening divide of race and justice in America.

Floyd, 46, died while in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day. A video of the arrest shows fired police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee pressing on Floyd’s neck as he was face down and handcuffed. In the video, Floyd can be heard saying he couldn’t breathe.

Chauvin is charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers, who also were fired, are being investigated for possible charges.

It was important for Youngstown native and Ohio State University graduate Sonia Lenoir, who organized the protest on behalf of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, to show that a protest could happen peacefully, that people could come together and not have such an important message hijacked by violence and destruction.

“Watching the video, I could feel it in my heart. I could feel the hurt everyone else is feeling,” Lenoir said. “So many have expressed feelings through anger and violence and I did not want that to be reciprocated into my protest. The speakers helped me get my point across more than I thought I could.”

Speakers included Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver, Youngstown State University students, faith leaders and Ryan.

“Bringing people together can make a difference and create change,” Lenoir said. “I loved the diversity of people who came wanting to help us, people who aren’t like us and have the power to help us and work with us and not against us.”

Lenoir reached out to Sojourn and Rev. Lewis Macklin to help make her vision a reality.

Derrick McDowell, with Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, said he and others reached out to community and faith leaders, council members and the police to put the protest together.

“We wanted to rally the people in this electrifying moment so that we could use that energy for option. We wanted to make sure because Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past is rooted in the principles of non-violence. So we were ensuring that the is protest was rooted in peaceful assembly,” McDowell said.

And it was. No projectiles were thrown, no police in riot gear, no fires or vandalized business.

Mayor Brown held his young son’s hand standing on the courthouse steps with an I Love the Yo T-shirt, sparking chants from the crowd.

“This is what justice looks like,” he said pointing to the crowd that wrapped from Front Street to beyond Boardman Street.

“I see black people and white and Latino’s. Let’s hear it for unity,” said Ryan, D-13. “We all have children. We all saw George Floyd get murdered. But we have got to be united. We can’t get let people get on social media and divide us up. We have to stay united.”

Rev. Todd Johnson, Second Baptist Church in Warren, passionately challenged politicians, police unions and citizens to go to the polls in November and vote.

“I give a challenge to politicians: We don’t want your speeches; we want your actions. You can’t serve two masters. You either do was politically expediate or you do what’s in the best interest of the people. We don’t care about your re-election. We don’t care about your next fundraisers.. We want you to act in your own backyard in the interest of black lives.”

Johnson said he is thankful for the non-violent protest that occurred because of the work that was done upfront. He believes many communities around the country are trying to do the same thing, but for whatever reason, it’s not happening because of some agitators.

McDowell said when people saw the protest was going to happen, comments were made that it couldn’t happen without violence. But it happened and McDowell ended the protest by asking protesters to leave the same way they came in, peacefully, but with passion.

“The climate has changed and we know that it’s an existential crisis, and I mean that physically and metaphorically for this city,” McDowell said.

As for the protest resulting in the city burning, McDowell said, “It’s only burning with the passion to go out and effect change and bring about justice. So, it burned, but it burned in the most precious way possible, it burned in the hearts of the people of this community.”

Editor’s note: After this protest ended, some windows were broken at the Choffin Career and Technical Center, the United Way of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, and a police cruiser was vandalized, according to WKBN.com. As a precaution, Wal-Mart stores in Boardman and Liberty closed early as are stores at the Shops at Boardman Park.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.