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Nationwide protests hit home as South Royalton event draws hundreds

  • Attendees of a rally on the South Royalton Green Saturday, June 6, 2020, laid prone for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time George Floyd was pinned to the ground by the knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on his neck, killing him in police custody on May 25. Chauvin faces a second-degree murder charge and protests have erupted nationwide for days. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Shirley Jefferson, associate dean for student affairs and diversity at Vermont Law School, who marched in Selma, Ala., in 1965, speaks at a rally to commemorate the lives of black people killed by police. The event took place in South Royalton, Vt., on Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Stephanie MacPhail, of Strafford, left, and Monica Alsup, of Thetford, listen to speakers in South Royalton, Vt., Saturday, June 6, 2020, during a rally to remember George Floyd and other black people who died in police custody. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After stepping away from the microphone, Shirley Jefferson, associate dean for student affairs and diversity at Vermont Law School, hugs an attendee of a rally to demand systemic change in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody. When rejoining the crowd, Jefferson said, “I broke the sky,” about the downpour of rain that came at the end of her speech. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Deb Shinnlinger, left, and Richard Fox, second from left, both of Canaan, joined a group of over 100 people on the green in Canaan, N.H., demonstrate against the killings of George Floyd and other black people in police custody Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ella Shinnlinger, 17, of Canaan, left, her sister Opal, 16, right, and their mother Deb, obscured, joined a demonstration on the Canaan, N.H., green Saturday, June 6, 2020, to speak out against the killings of George Floyd and other black people in custody of police. What was to be a small gathering of friends organized by Alice Schori, of Canaan, grew by word of mouth to about 100 people. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/6/2020 10:14:38 PM
Modified: 6/7/2020 8:53:58 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — Hundreds of people covered the South Royalton green on Saturday evening, most with their bodies prone on the ground and their arms behind their backs, others stooping with their heads bowed.

They laid there for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time that investigators say a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, leading to his death — an act of violence that has spurred nearly two weeks of nationwide protests.

“That was uncomfortable, wasn’t it?” speaker Alicia Barrow asked the crowd. “That’s how long George Floyd … begged for his mama, begged for breath and pleaded for mercy.”

As cloudy skies threatened overhead, black speakers climbed the bandstand to share stories of racism, discrimination and pain at a rally to commemorate black lives lost in police custody — and messages of hope that a nationwide reckoning with racial inequities might bring about change.

They included organizer Shirley Jefferson, associate dean for student affairs and diversity at Vermont Law School, who talked about marching in Selma, Ala., in 1965 and living through segregation in the South.

“I’m not going back to the bus, I’m not going to take them killing black people,” Jefferson shouted to the crowd.

As rain began pelting down and wind gusts surged across the green, her voice grew louder: “This is my country. I earned it. My blood, sweat and tears. My heart.”

The multiracial crowd, representing a range of ages, made for the largest of the rallies held in response to Floyd’s death around the Upper Valley in recent days, including another event in Canaan on Saturday morning.

Organizers estimated at least 600 people came to Royalton, some of them diverted from an event planned in Randolph that was postponed to June 13. The whole of the green was covered, with many people wearing masks in an effort to avoid spreading of the novel coronavirus, and maintaining space between groups.

The scope and frequency of the rallies represent the most significant response to the yearslong Black Lives Matter movement in the Upper Valley to date, mirroring protests that have proliferated nationwide following the death of Floyd while he was in police custody on May 25.

A video that began circulating days after Floyd’s death showed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he died. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, and other officers who were at the scene face lesser charges.

For many people, including black organizers in the Upper Valley, Floyd’s death speaks to long-standing issues of systemic racism and police use of force on black people. Over the course of the two-hour event in South Royalton, they encouraged those listening to stand up to injustice when they see it and to support organizations focused on addressing inequality such as Black Lives Matter, the Peace and Justice Center and the NAACP’s chapter in Rutland.

They started the event by listing the names of other black men, women and children who have been killed by police in recent years. Barrow, a Hartford Selectboard member and black woman, issued the crowd a plea.

“Now I stand in front of you, begging you: Do not let them steal one more life,” she told the crowd.

“Not one more life,” attendees chanted in response.

Khalil Abdullah, Muslim adviser and the multifaith adviser at the William Jewett Tucker Center at Dartmouth College, also spoke Saturday, sharing his anxieties about the safety of his children.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hold them in my heart — from deep love, yes, but also from deep fear,” he said.

But Abdullah also reminded the crowd to look forward.

“Hope is the only thing we have,” he said. “Do not give up on it.”

Jefferson added later: “It’s going to take all of us. God bless you. It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK.”

The rally followed another, smaller demonstration on Saturday morning in Canaan. The morning protest, organized by Canaan resident Alice Schori, who is white, drew about 75 people to the green between Route 118 and Mascoma Valley Road.

Carrying signs with messages including “say their names” and “white silence is deafening,” the crowd stood out in the green for more than an hour Saturday morning as many passing drivers honked their horns in support.

“Obviously there was a lot of pent-up frustration,” Schori said, adding that she originally had organized a small gathering with just some of her friends, but the message spread around the town quickly.

Alix Olson, a Canaan resident who is also white and who helped organize the event Saturday morning, said that she has seen “both sides” because she’s a former police officer.

“We need to reform policing in America,” Olson said, adding that a larger, systemic change needs to happen to achieve racial equity — one that includes better education, more affordable housing, and environmental justice.

“What I’ve seen has sickened and disgusted me; the brutality against black and brown people,” Olson said. “The inequality in this country has to change.”

Abdullah echoed the sentiment in his speech, noting the symbolism of Floyd’s cry that he couldn’t breathe before he died.

“The foot of injustice has been on our necks for too long,” Abdullah said. “And we can’t breathe.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216. Valley News Staff Writer Nora Doyle-Burr contributed to this report.




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