Joining voices to protest racial injustice and police brutality throughout the nation, hundreds gathered Wednesday in Jacksonville for a peaceful – if emphatic – unity walk from the Historic Tomato Bowl to Sweet Union Church.

Chanting “No justice, no peace,” along with “I can't breathe,” participants marched for men like George Floyd, an African American man who died on Memorial Day while being detained by police in Minneapolis.

Former officer Derek Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers, who were fired, were charged with aiding and abetting in the killing.

Local protesters carried signs with varying messages: “Racism is the real pandemic” read one, while another was captioned “If you are neutral in situations of Injustice then you have chosen the side of the oppressor #BLM.”

“We pay you to protect us not kill us #BLM” and “Let us live” were a direct message to law enforcement; one sign ­– in Spanish – asked “¿y si fuera tu hijo? What if it were your son?'” was a direct plea for involvement, while others listed the names or photos of African Americans killed in past years while in police custody.

At the start of the procession, Pastor Michael Hollie of Jacksonville's Greater Mount Horeb Church reminded the crowd “this is going to be a peaceful march – together we are standing (against) injustice.

“Listen,” he added, “everybody is not racist. Everybody is not mean. Everybody is not corrupt. But it does exist. Tonight, we are standing together as one. There is no color out here – it's just the human race.”

A groundswell of support for the march was triggered by a simple query on social media from Jen Bowen, who earlier during the week asked about a local protest to support.

“I got a lot of community support to do this,” said Bowen, one of the rally coordinators. “I had enormous outreach … this is not mine, this belongs to the community, because without the community, we wouldn't be here.”

She reminded the crowd that in order to effect change, people must stand against injustice whenever they see it, even if they are afraid.

“I know it's scary,” she said. But “every single person has a right, and needs to stand up. Nothing's going to change if we don't stop (injustice) when we see it. Every person here – we need to stop being scared of each other. We need to come together when you see something. Speak up. Stand up. Say something.”

Jacksonville Police Chief Joe Williams said Wednesday's march drew an estimated 250-300 people. Approximately 80 law enforcement partners from Bullard, Alto, Rusk, Cherokee County and DPS assisted local police in ensuring a safe environment throughout the rally .

“We are appalled by events in Minneapolis, and we certainly respect the rights of those who want to protest, and we want to give them the opportunity to do so,” he said.

“With the current environment, we were prepared for anything,” Williams said, adding that local police “had heard there might be some agitators from the outside coming in.”

“We were very pleased with the outcome,” he said, noting that unlike a number of protests across the nation, “there were no arrests, no property damaged, no one was injured. We appreciate everyone's cooperation … everyone accomplished their mission that day.”

Ultimately, Bowen said, “my hope is for all our children, our grandchildren to read about this one day in the history books and be like, 'Wow … y'all really treated each other like that? That's really how it was?'”

Smiling, she told those gathered, “Thanks for showing Jacksonville we can do it, can't we?”

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