Last night’s heavy rains didn’t deter more than 1000 protesters that filled the plaza in front of the county courthouse in downtown Wilmington, calling for changes in policing and criminal justice policies impacting African Americans.
The “I Still Can’t Breathe (March for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor)” rally featured speakers from multiple civil rights groups as well as a US congresswoman. The peaceful demonstration began at the Riverfront’s Tubman-Garrett Park and made its way to the Leonard Williams Justice Center on King Street.
Tension across the city had been high, following rioting that stemmed from last Saturday’s downtown protests. A significant, multi-department police presence was on hand and there were no reports of protest-related violence last night.
The official event wrapped up at 7:30 pm. However, the News Journal reported that some protesters initiated a new march back to the Riverfront afterward, which led to the closure of I-95 in both directions for about 30 minutes. Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy reportedly joined protesters on part of the march.
People began gathering at the Riverfront hours before the protest kicked off at 6 pm. But by early afternoon law enforcement had blocked off key roads with barricades and elevated the Market Street and Walnut Street bridges to better reduce traffic into the city. Police also fanned out in several areas of the Park.
Most appeared to be wearing face masks and for those who did not come with signs, stations with posters and pens were offered by organizers. Elected officials in attendance included Gov. John Carney, Wilmington Mayor Purzycki, and Attorney General Kathy Jennings, who was there from the beginning at the Riverfront to the last speaker at the Courthouse.
The events Tubman-Garrett Park kicked off with a prayer for peace, change, and justice, and were followed by chants of “Black lives matter,” “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe” as people began their march toward downtown Wilmington.
Hundreds marched to the courthouse chanting, “No justice, no peace,” before Congresswoman Lisa Blunt-Rochester took the podium — the only speaker not to get doused in the rain.
Speakers at the event included event organizer Coby Owens, who is running for Wilmington City Council, as well as others related to cases of alleged police violence, such as Keandra McDole, the sister of Jeremy ‘Bam Bam’ McDole who was killed in a confrontation with police in 2015 while in a wheelchair, also spoke.
“When we say black lives matter, we’re not saying white lives don’t matter. But what we are saying is black lives matter now,” she told the crowd. “When is our lives going to matter as much as y’ alls?” she asked.
“There was a great and powerful sense of unity and justice, not only in each one of the speeches, but also in the crowds,” said Wilmington resident Jack Sieffert, who attended the protest. “The vibe wasn’t about hatred or violence, but really a tangible one of unity, purpose, and determination — not only to hear the speakers but also to make change going forward,” he said.
Twenty-year-old Lilly Allingham, who went to the protest with her mother and a friend, said her hope is that true reform in police forces across the country will come of recent events.
“I feel that it’s important that if you can attend protests and donate and do what you can to support Black Lives Matter. I know like a lot of young people have taken to social media. I think that’s great a great way to spread information. But I think it also needs to be paired with actually going out and doing something,” she said.
The college student added that a night of demonstrations can only do so much to help erase what protesters say are generational problems with racism. “One of the things that is really difficult to change is that racism is systemic in this country. So it’s not that people aren’t trying and politicians aren’t making an effort, but it’s hard to change an entire country like that quickly.”
Lily’s mother Pam Allingham said the sufferings of blacks and the effect on the community should be addressed legislatively, starting with a thoughtful review of police conduct. “For me personally, I’ve been watching this go on for a long time. George Floyd was the sort of the catalyst. We all have to come together and agree that this has to stop — we need some reform,” she said.
Governor Carney issued a statement today thanking Delawareans who stayed in the rain to peacefully protest as well as rally organizers and law enforcement.
“I hear you. As your Governor, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we make progress. That we improve relationships between law enforcement and the people of our state. And that we all remain conscious of the ugly history around race in our state and our country. Without acknowledging that, you can’t hear or appreciate the anger and frustration.
Thank you to Chief Tracy, Colonel McQueen, Colonel Bond and all the officers of the Wilmington PD, the Delaware State Police, and the New Castle County PD. Our law enforcement officers are committed to working productively with the communities they serve,” he said.
Mayor Purzycki also said he was proud to be a part of Friday night’s demonstration. “I support racial justice initiatives and will work without delay to achieve these changes. The organizers promised a peaceful gathering and they worked with us to meet that goal,” he said.
Sieffert said he planned to stay engaged with some of the groups who organized last night’s events. People were told they could text “justice” to 77948 to hear about any future plans. “I think the speakers made it very clear that the protests were just the beginning to a long fight for actual, systematic change,” he said.