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Council praises city protests

Suffolk City Council started out its meeting Wednesday with a moment of silence for the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who was killed as a police officer kept a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

They ended it with each council member reflecting on Floyd, the aftermath of his death, and the peaceful protests that took place in the city in the days before the meeting.

“In the aftermath of the tragic murder of George Floyd,” said Mayor Linda Johnson at the start of the meeting, “and in memory of those who have lost their lives to this same type of unconscionable violence before him, please join me in a minute of silence that we can reflect on these horrifying actions — to pray not only for these victims that died at the very hands that were sworn to protect them, but for those whose lives will be forever changed by the violence, an uncharted disruption that has crippled America in the midst of this already fragile time that we find ourselves in during this deadly pandemic.

“It is truly unimaginable that in the 21st century that we would be witnessing such vile instances of pure hate and evil. The images we’ve seen are beyond disturbing, and have cast a stain on those in law enforcement. But I am also aware that the actions of a few certainly are not a reflection of the many dedicated men and women of the entire law enforcement profession. The answer to injustice is not to silence the critic, but to end the injustice, to be united in our outrage, and that starts with each and every one of us. An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Councilman Lue Ward spoke of the city’s protests and thanked Suffolk Police Chief Thomas Bennett for how he runs the department.

“When I had seen the acts on TV, Mr. Floyd, you came right to my mind,” Ward said, referring to the police chief. “Because it hurt me to see this man on the ground. It hurt me to see a police officer abuse this man on the ground. We don’t have to know law. People know when you’re aggressive. People know when you’ve got the power over somebody.”

Ward then noted what he teaches his son to do when a police officer stops his car.

“I’ve got a son. My son was 17, 18 years old. I went to a meeting with a number of ministers and pastors. My son had just started driving, senior at Nansemond River (High School), played football. Things that are happening around the police department, and I came up and said, ‘You know what?’ Every Friday or Saturday that my son (went) out — some of y’all don’t understand this — but as an African-American father or parent, yes we do go through this. And I told my son, ‘Let me tell you something. When you get stopped, you stop that car, you put your hands up, roll the window down, and say, ‘Yes sir, officer. What do I have to do?’ Yes, we have to do that. … That’s reality.”

Ward said people in the city need to sit down and communicate, and added that he was proud of the people protesting in North Suffolk Monday.

“They were peaceful, they were close to each other and they had their masks,” Ward said. “I was proud of them. Thank the Lord for them, God bless them, and they outshined some of the (other) areas. We didn’t have a problem — so far. … We sit here and try to pretend that everything is all right. Yeah, OK. Yeah, all right. It’s not. We’ve got areas that are hurting. We’ve got areas that certain people represent (where) people are talking, but are you listening?”

Another councilman, Tim Johnson, also praised the peaceful protests in the city.

“I hope our young people know that they’re going to be heard, as well as our older people too,” Tim Johnson said. “You’re going to be heard.”

Councilman Donald Goldberg said he was deeply disturbed and saddened by George Floyd’s death, and by those of others who have died due to police brutality. He said that the protests and the violence and destruction of property are not one and the same. He said people should get out and vote to effect the change they want.

“These injustices must stop,” Goldberg said. “Black lives matter, and we must work together to change the environment to allow these injustices to happen. Racism and hatred must not be tolerated and must be stopped. The injustice in the death of Mr. Floyd must be met with a clear conviction in the prosecution of the officers involved.”

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, who also spoke at a protest outside City Hall Friday, praised the city’s police department as one of the best, but said what happened in Minneapolis can happen anywhere.

“All it takes is one bad apple to make every police department in the world look bad,” Bennett said. “If you go out to the grocery store and buy a bag of apples, if you go through it, usually you will find one bad apple in that bag and if it stays there long enough, it’ll make the whole bag go bad.”

Bennett also praised the young city residents who have led the protests in the city.

Councilman Mike Duman praised the peaceful city protesters, but took exception that law enforcement officers are being maligned as a group for what he said are the actions of a few.

“In our city in particular, we’re truly blessed to have the officers that comprise our police force protecting and serving our citizens every day,” Duman said.

He referenced a Facebook post from Capt. Lance Callis of the Suffolk Police Department that said he works for the finest police department in Virginia. In his post, Callis said that “in Suffolk, we have an incredible relationship with our citizens, and we demand professionalism, compassion and fairness from our officers. … We believe that our citizens deserve the best we have to offer, and though we may fall a little short sometimes, we will always strive to be better and grow from our mistakes.”

Councilman Roger Fawcett said nothing justified George Floyd’s death, but said there must be a more peaceful way of getting the message across. He said protesters have done well in getting their message out, “and doing it civilly. That’s great. That’s fantastic. But our police department has been so engaged … with the community. They’ve done an excellent job.”

Councilman Curtis Milteer said he has never seen the kind of contention grip the country the way it has now.

Mayor Linda Johnson said there needs to be conversation and action that comes about in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“One of the things Martin Luther King (Jr.) said about violence was, violence is a monologue. We need a dialogue,” Johnson said. “We don’t need to be talking to ourselves. We need to be talking to one another.

“I’ve thought about this long and hard, and I’m guilty of it, I’ve said it, I’ve said it in the past. I’d walk around and I’d say, ‘well, you know, all lives matter. That is very true. But it is not enough or true for me to say that until I can sit here and tell you that black lives matter.”

Delegate Clinton Jenkins said now is the time to act in the General Assembly on fundamental changes, such as criminal justice reform and accountability. He said COVID-19 has “shifted things around a little bit” with the budget, but added he wants to see what it can do.

“The message is clear,” Jenkins said Friday morning. “The citizens are crying out. It’s time for change, to stop the senseless killing … We’re going to come up with legislation to make sure there’s accountability. We’ve seen them. We’ve heard their voices. And now it’s time. … We’re going to listen to the city, we’re going to the police officer, we’re going to listen to the community. Black lives matter, and we’re going to effect change and improve the way things are done.”