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Friday, April 12, 2024
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Reuben Faloughi, who led the chants at the March for our Freedom rally at Bo Diddley Plaza, calls for the gathered crowd to unite together in support of George Floyd and the countless other African Americans who lost their lives at the hands of police officers.

George Floyd took his last breath Monday, but chants demanding his name be remembered echoed down the streets of downtown Gainesville Saturday.

Holding signs with messages like “I can’t breathe” and “white silence is violence,” protesters shouted that black lives matter through masks and bandanas and called for justice for Floyd’s death.

More than 1,000 people marched from Depot Park to Bo Diddley plaza Saturday morning in the March for our Freedom protest, joining a string of national demonstrations. Locals gathered to protest the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died on Monday after a white ex-Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

“The reason that he was fired and charged with murder is the protests and the energy and the movements for justice which make this possible,” said UF history professor Paul Ortiz. “Ten to 15 years ago, he would not have been charged.”

Aeriel Lane, a 36-year-old Gainesville resident and local activist, organized the march.

“I'm not only grieving for George Floyd, but I'm grieving for Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castile and my uncle and my father and my friends,” Lane said. “At any moment, they could be next. They could be the next hashtag.”

Members of Dream Defenders, a youth-led group that wants to spread awareness about their vision of safety and security, distributed water bottles and black face masks to the crowd to prepare for the march ahead. Lane informed the crowd that EMTs would be present and riding bicycles to keep up with the march in case anyone needed medical assistance at any point.

Before the journey started at 11 a.m., Lane told the crowd that she wanted to reiterate it was to be a peaceful demonstration.

“I would like to be able to get out into the community and maybe mend relationships with law enforcement,” Lane said. “But if that's not possible, I would like for black Americans in Gainesville to at least feel safe somewhere and feel like they have a voice against the system.”

As protesters began making their way to Bo Diddley Plaza, individuals lining the streets offered supplies and support along the way. Cars honked and one motorcyclist revved his engine in displays of support.

Water and milk were available in case protesters were pepper sprayed, a technique used at other demonstrations.

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“We’re different here in Gainesville,” 62-year-old Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones said. He said despite the large number of recent killings of black Americans poorly reflecting on law enforcement, GPDs policing is community-oriented.

Protest organizers required that participants wear masks throughout the entire march. Catherine Jean, a 38-year-old EMT, was offering assistance at the protest on behalf of Guerrilla Medics. She said that she saw almost 100% compliance with the organizers’ request.

“COVID is a concern, but our black community getting killed is also a concern,” Jean said.

People of all ages were present, and families joined together in protest. Forty-three-year-old Katrina Span attended the demonstration with her young daughter.

“This is to show her that there are good people in the world,” she said. “If we don’t speak up for ourselves, no one will.”

Twelve-year-old Madagail Russell drove with her mother and sister from Trenton, a city an hour away from Gainesville, to be a part of the march. She said she marched to support her black friends who are like family to her who couldn’t come out.

Allie Yocum, a 32-year-old local farm owner, rode her horse, Jupiter, an 18-year-old leopard appaloosa gelding, in Bo Diddley Plaza. The white and black horse had “BLM” painted on both sides of its back legs.

“We wanted to stand in solidarity, and we thought there’s nothing more solid than a horse,” Yocum said. Her husband, Zane Barber, said every voice deserves to be heard.

Lane addressed the crowd, and a moment of silence washed over Bo Diddley Plaza as each participant raised their fist in solidarity.

Reuben Faloughi, who led chants at the plaza, talked about his own experience overcoming his past objectification of women and encouraged people to use their personal power and influence to make a difference.

“In the past few weeks, raise your hand if you’ve felt powerless,” Faloughi said. “In the past few weeks, raise your hand if you’ve felt hopeless.”

A sea of hands flew up. While the protest began to simmer down, a woman sang “Still I Rise” to the crowd.

Lane ended the event in Bo Diddley with a speech thanking everyone for demanding change. After she shouted “Step the f*** up” into a megaphone, the crowd dispersed.

While the official March for Our Freedom demonstration ended at about 12:15 p.m., protesters broke out into groups to continue demonstrating. Some protesters turned down Sixth Avenue when the march ended, but about 30 people stopped at Main Street and University Avenue, calling for protesters to head to the Gainesville Police station.

As crowds passed the Alachua County Courthouse, a GPD officer stood in a SWAT uniform with the sounds of clapping and chants of “No justice, no peace” surrounding him.

About 150 protesters gathered outside the GPD station and began to chant “I can’t breathe,” “No justice no peace, f*** the police” and “These racist cops have got to go, hey hey, ho ho.”

While there was no clear organizer at the GPD station demonstration, Gainesville resident Kristen Johnson was in the center of a crowd and held a megaphone. The crowd grew larger, and EMTs followed in case of emergencies. Roaring chants in unison for black lives swallowed the street, along with bike riders ringing bells in support.

“It's almost like opening the newspaper and it's 1944,” Ortiz said. “After seeing these types of protests now for four decades from the perspective of the protesters, the problem is a lack of accountability amongst police forces in their locales.”

Protesters blocked Northwest Eighth Avenue and Northwest Sixth Street near the police station.

“Police tried to block us and confine us to a small square, so instead we started blocking other people out for protester safety and to have more room for impact,” said Kyrsten Owens, an 18-year-old protester helping block Northwest Eighth Avenue.

The scene at the police station grew quiet when a protester asked for a moment of silence for George Floyd. About 75 protesters then marched back toward Depot Park chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Some began chanting “F*** Trump,” and one protester yelled, “Stay focused y’all, f*** the police!”

Protesters continued chanting “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA,” “Abolish the police,” and “All cops are fascist” until they reached Depot Park.

During another offshoot demonstration on Main Street, a man in a silver Kia Soul drove through a crowd of protesters, according to eyewitnesses.

Sam Houle, a 21-year-old UF graduate, was participating in the demonstration when the incident occurred. He and other protesters were spread across Main Street to prevent traffic from passing and to make “as big a scene as we could.”

According to GPD Lt. Robert Fanelli, who saw the aftermath of the incident, witnesses told him that the suspect drove toward the crowd after passing two cars on a road protesters were blocking. Two or three of the witnesses said someone on a bike was hit by the vehicle, Fanelli said. No one has come forward to GPD about being hit by the car, Fanelli said.

Witnesses told Fanelli the driver appeared to be brandishing a gun. He said a silver semi automatic pistol was found with the driver, but no shots were fired.

Alachua County Jail identified the suspect driving the car as William John Connelly. The 64-year-old was charged with six counts of aggravated assault, according to a GPD tweet. He will be making his first court appearance Sunday morning, and an investigation into the incident is still ongoing.

The Alligator reached out to more than 10 people who voiced their disapproval of the crowd’s behavior on social media. Some declined to comment, and none of the remaining responded in time for this story’s publication.

Kathy Otero, 33, spent the afternoon demonstrating with her husband and dog by her side.

“We are one human family,” she said. “Let’s make it seem that way.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of EMT Catherine Jean's name. The Alligator originally reported differently.

Chasity Maynard, Tristan Wood, Natalia Galicza, Ariana Aspuru and Christian Ortega contributed to this report. 

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