Around 75 people gathered on the courthouse lawn for a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest Friday afternoon in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an African American who died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.

A sign was placed in front of the courthouse in honor of Floyd and other African Americans who were killed by police in front of the courthouse.

Derek Meinenburg, who organized the event, said a sign honoring Floyd that was originally placed in front of the courthouse was removed without permission and this sign will replace it. Noting that he received the permission to display the sign for two weeks, Meinenburg said he will continue to seek extensions to leave the sign standing until change is seen.

During the more than two-hour event along Perry Street, numerous drivers honked their horns at the protestors in shows of solidarity, although some hecklers shouted from their vehicles at the crowd. Early in the gathering, Meinenburg emphasized the importance of the protest remaining peaceful, urging those attending to ignore any attempts to incite violence or the use of hateful language.

One-by-one, participants of different races addressed the crowd, sharing times they’ve experienced racism, both in Henry County and in other locations in which they lived. Many shared stories dating back to childhood, being called racial slurs by other classmates or encountering issues with teachers. Others shared stories of being followed while in stores because of racial profiling and feeling fear when seeing law enforcement.

Kiara Gray of Napoleon shared that she was first called a racial slur by an adult when she was 12 years old.

“I don’t want this to feel like this is an attack against our community but I do want to say that if you don’t think it’s a problem here, then you’re ignorant,” she said. “You’re not asking people, you’re not coming to things like this when people are speaking their truth, people of color that have experienced this, and it’s not your right to say what’s going on with them.

“It’s everywhere, it is everywhere,” she continued. “The point of this is to get people to listen. We can’t force people to understand, but we need people to listen because that’s where it starts.”

Meinenburg is a Napoleon native who is currently living in Bowling Green while he attends school. He said he attended last Saturday’s protest in Toledo which started out peaceful before escalating into violence.

“I can speak from personal witness that most people wanted to be peaceful, a few people obviously showed up just because they had bad intentions,” he said, adding during the escalation he saw a white man tag a police car with an ANTIFA tag and then later he witnessed a black protestor being tackled and punched by Toledo police officers.

“.... Two of them punched him the face and one of them took his riot helmet off to hit him in the face with it, which that broke my heart seeing that,” he said. “After everything I witnessed, it showed me that I needed to stand up for this cause. It strengthened the beliefs I already had.

“I see the video of George Floyd and think of any of my friends out here who are black, I see them in that position and I’m scared,” he continued. “I won’t ever experience the racism and the struggles and the types of things they go through, but I’m afraid for them. I want them to feel just as safe walking out here as I am.”

Meinenburg said he wanted to host the event in Napoleon because, growing up, he had African American friends whom he witnessed being harassed due to their race.

“We do have a lot of people who have good hearts out here and treat everyone as equals, but we do have a few bad eggs who harass people of color in the streets,” he said. “I know I feel much safer walking down these streets than a lot of my black friends.”

“I want to show our community and maybe those few bad eggs, that we are united and we stand strong and we’re going to defend our brothers and sisters no matter what the color of their skin is, no matter what their religion is, no matter what their sexual orientation is, any of that,” he continued. “If I can start change here as others are starting change in their cities such as Toledo and Bowling Green, then I would love to be the one to start that change.”

Meienburg added one common misconception that he’s heard in reaction to the Black Lives Matter phrase is that it implies only black lives matter.

“... When we say Black Lives Matter, some people tend to think that means only black lives matter,” he said. “The reason we say Black Lives Matter is because, currently in our society as a whole, black lives have less value placed on them than ours, such as white lives.

“The amount per capita of black people and people of color who are murdered by police unarmed in our communities is much higher than the percentage of white people per capita who are murdered,” he continued.

Meinenburg thanked the city for working with him to organize the protest, as well as Napoleon Police Chief David Mack and Henry County Sheriff Michael Bodenbender, who both attended.

Bodenbender said he has watched the video of Floyd and will not tolerate racism in the sheriff’s office.

“I support your message,” he said. “It sickened me to see what happened to Mr. Floyd.”

Likewise, Mack said he supports the message and thanked those for coming out there.

“I gave a commencement speech not too long ago and one of the things I talked about is the youth being our future,” he said. “You guys have proven that. This is something that can change and we have to work together on.

“Henry County is a great place,” he said. “It’s a little disheartening to hear some of the things that you guys have experienced, but understand that the sheriff and I are dedicated to taking this and doing this the right way. Understand you are the future and you’ve shown how Henry County can show the right way to do this — peacefully, responsibly.”

The event concluded with the protestors marching peacefully around parts of the downtown.

E-mail comments to jenl@northwestsignal.net.

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