HARWICH – On May 25, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, George Floyd cried out for help, calling for his mother, a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck until Floyd’s life ended on the street of the Minnesota city.
On June 6, an estimated 1,000 peaceful protesters kneeled in silence in Brooks Park for eight minutes and 46 seconds in Floyd’s honor, the only sounds the chirping of birds in nearby trees and an occasional muffled sob.
The crowd had gathered well before the 2 p.m. start, swelling to fill and spill past the lawn of the park, breathing life into a peaceful demonstration that had ridden a roller coaster of tumult before it took place on Saturday afternoon.
Originally, a pair of Monomoy Regional High School eighth graders, close friends Susannah Brown and Hope Jorgensen, came up with the plan for a peaceful protest condemning the actions of the that allowed Floyd’s death to happen. But when online posts regarding the event were met with controversial comments, the girls’ parents felt it best to cancel the event for their safety and the safety of those taking part.
As word spread about the negative treatment Brown and Jorgensen had come up against, adults in the community, including Elizabeth Harder, Harwich Delegate on the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates, and Monomoy graduate Lexi Roma, got angry and took action, assuming control of the event.
“I wanted to stand up to the bullies,” Harder said. “I thought it was reprehensible that people would try to scare schoolchildren into canceling something they believed in. What got me so angry was the way the kids were treated. I wanted to stand up for them.”
News of the rejuvenated event quickly spread, with protesters arriving at Brooks well before the 2 p.m. start, many carrying signs with powerful messages. One read, “All lives can’t matter until Black lives do,” while another read, “White mothers cannot choose silence while Black mothers are choosing caskets.”
One, held by a Black sixth grader wearing a protective face mask with the words “I can’t breathe” inked across it, simply read, “Am I next?”
In the beginning, the group feared being met with unrest, worried about those with ill intent aimed at disrupting their peaceful gathering. But the event remained peaceful, even as it grew powerful, the words of speakers Tito Santos-Silva and Timora Israel ringing out well beyond the park.
Santos-Silva reminded the crowd that racism is not new to this country. The only difference now, he said, is that people are filming it.
“We’ve had to walk a certain way, talk a certain way, act a certain way in order to fit in, and also to survive,” he said. “I’ve had this conversation with my son about how he should walk in his own community.”
The protests, he said, seemed a sign, however tentative, of hope.
“I think for the first time in America’s sordid history, everyone is starting to realize that we have a problem with racism,” he said. “That gives me hope that my son won’t have this conversation with his son.”
That said, Santos-Silva challenged the crowd to continue striving for change away from the gathering.
“It’s easy to do this when we’re all together. It’s easy when there’s a hashtag. It’s easier when everybody else on your timeline is saying the same thing,” he said. “The question now is, what do you do next? What are you going to when you walk back into your office and you realize that there is racism there? What are you going to do at your children’s school when you realize that there’s racism there? What are you going to do if you see my son being pinned to the floor because there’s racism there? Martin Luther King said, ‘We will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’ There is no more room for indifference.”
Then the crowd took a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds, after which, signs aloft, they marched, Brown and Jorgensen carrying a massive “Black Lives Matter” banner as they led the way. Harwich Police Chief David Guillemette walked right behind them.
“I think it’s important that the community of Harwich realizes that that police department is behind the idea that what occurred in Minneapolis was absolutely grotesque and unnecessary, and there’s absolutely no police officer I know that would support that conduct ever,” he said. “That’s why I walked.”
When the crowd reconvened at Brooks, Timora Israel spoke, offering a key suggestion on making change.
“If you want to get involved in a different way, support Black businesses,” Israel said. “When you visit the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, ask them if they have a list of Black-owned businesses. If they don’t, ask them why and when? We have to ask the why question. The answer to the why tells us where we stand and how far we have to go.”
As the crowd slowly dispersed, a sense of change in the air, Roma reflected upon its success in remaining peaceful and powerful.
“I’m just feeling so blessed and happy to be part of this community at this point,” she said. “Seeing things on Facebook made me super upset and I felt like, ‘What is wrong with this town? What is wrong with Cape Cod?’ I just felt so much negativity.”
But the positive energy from the crowd bolstered her.
“I hope that everybody leaves here and keeps that energy,” Roma said. “Keep that energy in November. Keep this energy next year. Keep this energy throughout life. And keep in mind, we’re all one.”