THIS past Sunday, I headed to Johnson Square to participate in and cover the Savannah George Floyd Protest, not quite sure what to expect.
The previous day, social media lit up with concern as to who the organizer was, fear of the event being infiltrated by counter-protestors, and worries of the protest reaching riotous levels, as we’d seen all through the weekend.
Saturday evening, Mayor Van Johnson announced he’d be attending the protest and spoke passionately about the struggles of being a black man in America, solidifying his support for the event.
Sunday afternoon, Regions Bank’s windows were boarded with plywood, an ominous sign. But, ultimately, that plywood would have been better served somewhere else. Savannah pulled off a peaceful protest that should make us proud of our city and everyone in it.
I decided to get to the square about 30 minutes early to get a good spot. No dice: the square was already packed by the time I arrived, and speakers were already addressing the crowd. With the help of Clinton Edminster and Jon Taylor, I got a great spot on one of the posts at the south end of Johnson Square.
By 2 p.m., the crowd filled out the square and spilled into Congress Street. It was electrifying to be in a crowd that large; I wish I knew for sure how many people were there.
Aldermen Detric Leggett and Kurtis Purtee gave moving speeches that encouraged action after the protest was over. The crowd knelt in remembrance of George Floyd, fists raised.
Someone close to the action screamed, “Some of y’all can’t even hold your hands up for as long as he held his knee on his neck! How will this end?” in a voice ragged with emotion.
After a bit, the crowd was on the move. Originally, the plan was to march one block to City Hall. The organizers rescinded that plan late Saturday, choosing instead to stay in Johnson Square.
So the march surprised me a little, but off I went, finding a spot in the window ledge of Savannah Clothing. (I’m 5’1”, so scaling things to see better is not new.)
Religious and city leaders spoke, but it was hard to hear them from where I was. The chants by the crowd, however, rang out throughout downtown. That solidified the feeling of community, as did the support I could see in the crowd.
A guy on the ledge with me kindly offered me a bottled water. There were lots of people in the crowd offering water to each other, and people on bikes circled the perimeter to keep an eye on things.
As Mayor Johnson gave what felt like closing remarks, much of the crowd noticed the arrival of National Guard vehicles on the west end of the crowd, along Whitaker Street. The mood of the crowd changed then. It was a tangible feeling. People began to file out of the crowd.
But it became obvious there was a counter-protestor in the crowd, who was also walking east. The crowd moved to chase him out, and things nearly got physical before he eventually went his own way.
Someone began beating a skateboard on the ground in agitation, but another person shouted at him to stop, and he did. That displays, to me, that the collective mood of the group was one of peace.
The momentum of the crowd pushed us down Bay Street and down one of the ramps to River Street, where it moved up the street westward. Someone let off fireworks up near Williamson Street, and I and everyone around me ran like hell in the other direction until realizing what it actually was.
As we came up MLK Jr. Boulevard, police vans and tactical unit vehicles passed going north, and the mood shifted again to one of anger at the cops. At the courthouse, someone sent a Black Lives Matter flag up the flagpole to huge cheers.
Then the crowd was off again to the Savannah Police headquarters on Habersham, where we came across police donning riot gear in a parking lot off the back of the building.
At this point, the crowd seemed to splinter. Many protestors kept walking, shouting to let the cops go. But another sizeable crowd faced off with the officers, chanting for them to walk with us. They did not.
I speak purely from my own experience, but what I saw was an impressively peaceful protest until the National Guard made their presence known. It wasn’t a surprise that they were there, or that the city was preparing for things to escalate: photos of cops in riot gear at the Civic Center circulated on social media before I even got downtown.
Of course, there was no way of knowing what would happen later that night, especially as there were rumors of groups from Charleston coming down to stir up trouble. Thankfully, nothing happened and everyone was safe. I thank and commend all the people who helped keep us all safe on Sunday, which includes both our officers and our fellow community members who looked out for each other.
So, what’s next? As many encouraged on Sunday, this is not the end of the road. There’s a lot more work to do. Listen to what black people have to say, and learn what you can do to help.
Most importantly, let your passion for racial justice continue past the thrill of the march. We have a lot of work to do. I feel confident that we’re on the right track. Sunday in Savannah proved it.