With their fists and signs held up high, two thousand protesters heard their chants echo down the Bluemont Avenue corridor Tuesday evening.
Their shadows preceded them on the hot asphalt as they marched east toward Juliette, the setting sun behind them. Bike-mounted Riley County Police Department officers cleared the eastbound lanes for them, while westward cars honked in support of the approximately 2,000 protesters between Aggieville and Juliette Avenue along Bluemont. RCPD estimated the size of the crowd.
In the crowd that stretched across several blocks, chants broke out separately and sporadically, but they carried the same theme — enough was enough, they said, and police brutality must end. The crowd ran through a long list of black American names who have been victims of police violence.
But the crowd particularly focused on George Floyd, the latest member of that list. His death last week sparked the past several days of intense and occasionally violent protests and police responses in cities across the U.S.
The local protest — Manhattan’s largest in many years — remained peaceful, although a man was arrested as the protest was winding down and charged with criminal threat after allegedly saying he would “kill the n****rs” at the protest.
At a brief ceremony before the march at Triangle Park, JahVelle Rhone, associate pastor at Manhattan Christian Fellowship Church, said he was not excited to be at the protest, but it was a necessary response to the injustices black Americans still face a half century after the civil rights movement.
“What I’m here for today is to unite us all under common ground,” he said in a speech to the crowd. “I’m not here for violence. I’m not here for looting. I’m not here for rioting. I can quote Martin Luther King all day, but some of y’all have been quoting Martin Luther King as if he’s Santa Claus. And that’s just not the case,” he said, pointing out that even King was assassinated for his political activism.
“I believe in the foundation of equality,” he continued. “I believe in the sanctity of human life, and I believe and stand against police brutality, and I will continue to stand against police brutality and injustice and the murder of black people. Until we can say black lives matter, then we still have a problem in our system. Whether it be morally or unjustly, we still have a problem.”
Teresa Parks, one of the protest’s organizers, said it struck a personal note when she saw Ahmaud Arbery’s death video on the news. Arbery, who was unarmed and jogging down the street, was shot to death in Georgia in February by vigilantes who claimed they suspected Arbery was burglarizing neighborhood homes. Parks said she worried for her own children, who could easily have been in the same situation.
But then she saw Floyd’s death video, and how he called for his mother with his dying breaths.
“Every mother in America, if your heart did not break when you saw that, you need to fix your spirit,” she said. “I watched that man’s life leave his eyes, and I thought, ‘What if that was my son?’”
She said she never wants to see any of her or other parents’ children in the same situation.
“This ain’t political, okay? If you’re a person, this should matter to you,” she said. “If you’ve got breath in your body and you can breathe, and he couldn’t, (this should matter to you).”
Before the protest, Parks met and spoke with RCPD director Dennis Butler, who attended and spoke at the protest. He choked up as he spoke about seeing George Floyd’s death, and that in his 40-year career as a police officer, he’s always been one to call out injustice or abuse of power.
Butler said that what happened to George Floyd was a crime, and that he and the other three officers who were involved in his death should be held accountable. Only then can police departments like RCPD ever hold any legitimacy with the public.
Butler asked the public to give the police department a chance to earn and keep their trust.
“We’re not what you have seen on the news,” he said. “That’s not who I am, that’s not who these officers are. They are here to serve you, and I am here to make sure they do it the right way. That’s what I ask you to believe.”
Several protesters said they were impressed by the turnout, and that they hoped to keep the momentum in speaking out against police brutality.
“We are not as divided as I maybe thought we were,” said Mallory Ferguson, a recently graduated K-State student. “We can come together when it really matters. I feel like here, the police have been very welcoming of the protests and willing to help us out. We can protest in peace.”
Tosha Sampson-Choma, an English professor at K-State, said she felt reassured by diversity of the crowd who came to support the cause.
“It shows that we’re all in solidarity in supporting and fighting against the violence against African-Americans,” she said. “I feel really supported and empowered by this. It reassures that people within my community see me, they hear my concerns and they’re willing to stand up with me.”
Chris Hobbs, a real estate agent, said even though Manhattan is a smaller community than some other cities where protests have made national news, he said the large turnout showed the power of protesting and can help inspire younger children.
“No matter your race, black lives matter, but we do have a lot of black lives that do matter but are gone,” he said. “It’s good to see everyone come together and protest and show they care. Everyone needs to have a voice, and for some of us who brought their kids, we want to show them that no matter what, speak up.”
RCPD assistant director Kurt Moldrup said he was pleased with the atmosphere at the protest, and he was inspired by the relationship the police department has been able to maintain with the community in his 35 years as an officer.
He said he’s hopeful this protest could be the start of something bigger.
“This is a protest, and that’s good, but until it becomes a movement, it doesn’t do any good,” Moldrup said. “A protest is a one-time event, but a movement keeps it going. That’s what I hope, that this protest and all of the other things that occur become a movement.”