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At protest, a spiritual, and spirited, call for change

The largest of Suffolk’s protests to date brought more than 1,000 people downtown Wednesday as area pastors called for change in policing and policies.

Ben Fitzgerald, pastor of Zion Community Church, and Bishop A.S. Hall Sr. of Balm Church, led the protest — pulsating with prayer, praise and passion for change — from the Godwin Courts Building on Main Street to the Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum and back.

Members of City Council, including Mayor Linda Johnson and Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, turned out for the march, as did many Suffolk Police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

Fitzgerald said the march was born out of daily devotions with other pastors.

“As we looked at what’s going on, we left each other saying, ‘We have to do something,’” Fitzgerald said. “The progress we thought we made has seemed to have receded, for some reason, in the last four years. And if you want to make America great, we have to make racism wrong again.”

Hall said he and the other pastors are looking for a change in mindsets and systems while starting conversations about how that change will look.

“This is only the beginning,” Hall said. “This is the start of a change, and we’re not going to stop until things change.”

This was their start.

“I think we all know why we’re here,” Fitzgerald said as the march began, handing a microphone to Hall.

“No justice,” Hall shouted.

“No peace,” the crowd shouted back.

They repeated this down Main Street.

“The only real prison is fear,” Fitzgerald said as the march began, reading from the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, author of “Dreams of Freedom.” “And the only real freedom is the freedom from fear.”

“No justice,” Hall said.

“No peace,” the crowd shouted.

Throughout, crowd was loud and clear in what they wanted people to hear:

“Black lives matter.”

“George Floyd.”

Hall wanted this message to be heard also.

“We don’t want to be treated better than anyone,” Hall said. “We just want to be treated like human beings.”

Kanetria Williams, 17, had her own message.

With her brother Jonathan, 13, and her mother, Vonita, standing beside her, Kanetria said being a part of the crowd was like being part of a family of people standing up for George Floyd and other black men and women who have been victims of police brutality.

“It’s a good thing,” Williams said of the march, “but racism has to stop. It’s just how I feel of me being black and people around the world being judged by their color.”

Hakim Muhammad said policing, and police officers, have to change.

“What we’re hoping to happen is police reform,” Muhammad said. “It’s too many cases of brutality by police, and we want it to stop.”

Tony Jones, a Suffolk organizer for Virginia Organizing, a group that seeks to challenge injustice through empowerment of people in their respective communities, was in attendance.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about with Virginia Organizing is police reform,” Jones said. “At the same time, (we want) to upgrade the laws on the books that are outdated. Police officers need to be trained so therefore they can know when an individual has handcuffs on, the situation is deescalated, so therefore there should be no hands, no knees, no foot on a person’s neck, whatsoever.”

When the march had returned to the courthouse and the pastors asked everyone to take a knee, Suffolk Police joined with the rest of the crowd.

“We’re making a statement that this has to stop,” Fitzgerald said, speaking of police violence against black men and women.

Afterward, Hall said it was important to speak up about the injustices that have happened to black men and women, and join together to make sure they end.

“We all need to do our part,” Hall said. “And the amount of injustice that is happening, all of us have to say something. It’s at a critical place where It’s happening more frequently, so we all have to band together to stop this. And the black people, we are fed up with all these mishaps, as they call it, which we’ve seen a pattern. And now with the murder of George Floyd, it was just too much that we couldn’t be silent anymore.”

Fitzgerald read from the words of several people as the march went down Main Street.

“Bigotry lives not just in our words,” Fitzgerald said, reading words from sociologist Dr. DaShanne Stokes, “but in our actions, thoughts and institutions.”

Then, from Chriss Jami’s book Healology: “Always seek justice, but love only mercy. To love justice but hate mercy is but a doorway to more injustice.”

And from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fitzgerald said, “Hundreds of years of humiliation, abuse and degradation cannot be expected to find a voice in a whisper.”

“No justice,” Hall shouted.

The crowd shouted back, yet again — no whispers among them:

“No peace.”