SELMA – Downtown Selma filled with chants as marchers in the Unity March for Racial Justice made their way from Lincoln Park to the Selma Police Station and back again June 20. The event was a show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. And while there were African American voices in the crowd, there were also Mexican American voices, Punjabi voices and white voices, too. There were children in strollers, parents, elders, college students and teens waving signs, echoing Pastor Sean P. Battle as he called out George Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe.”
The marchers chanted back, “We can’t breathe.”
Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man who lived in Minneapolis, died while under arrest after allegedly using counterfeit money. Two autopsies have shown that Floyd’s death was a homicide. The officer that knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes has been charged with second- and third-degree murder, and third-degree manslaughter. The three other officers involved in the incident have been charged with aiding and abetting both second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter in connection to Floyd’s death.
Unity March organizers say it’s going to take the support of people of all colors to address racial strife that permeates all facets of culture typified by Floyd’s death.
“It’s the best feeling in the world to look out at the crowd and see the majority of the people here are not black,” speaker JaShawn Banks, Sr. said. He recounted how teammates and classmates have stepped in over the years when he was called derogatory names based on his skin color. Once, when he was dressed as the Selma High mascot at an away game, he took off the Bear head to take a sip of water. A student on the opposing team saw that he was African American and started using racial slurs against him.
“Before I could even finish turning around, I had four team mates in front of me ready to defend me and ready to go to battle for me. That’s what this is right here,” Banks said addressing the multi-ethnic crowd at Lincoln Park that day. “When people ask me, what can I do? When you see [racism] happening, step in front of somebody and protect them and stop it. Stand with us. Don’t make any excuses about why it’s happening. Just stand with us.”
The Unity March for Racial Justice was hosted by Central Valley Allies for Change. Organizer Sirina Renee Resendez said Floyd’s death is a wake-up call for people to recognize their own biases, learn about other culture’s struggles, specifically African Americans’, and speak out against racism when they see it.
“I’d like people to not be quiet, to use their voice and speak up against injustices. That’s so important for humanity. When they see racism, they need to step up and label it. I encourage people to read. I’d like people to educate themselves so we can really see past our biases,” she said. “I’d like people to come together, support one another and love on each other.”
St. Joseph Catholic Church’s Father Lupe Rios kicked off the march by praying for justice, calm and security.
“Heavenly Father, we invite you forward to accompany us on this march to the promised lands of justice and equality,” Rios prayed, “Today we ask our maker to defend us, to stand with us, the people who are the most vulnerable – the brown, the black, the brothers in blue, the many and few, the kids in detention cages.”
Holding banners, signs and posters, the group was led by Banks family, Pastor Sean P. Battle and others with Central Valley Allies for Change.
Centro de Folklor dancers Monique Mayra Zarate, Joey Zamora, Grecia Barranco and Andre Aranda marched in full folklore attire and then danced at the Veterans’ Plaza at Lincoln Park drawing cheers from the crowd. The event also drew members of Selma’s Sikh community who marched with signs showing their support.
Pastor Battle encouraged attendees to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable” by learning about other races and breaking down ignorance that fosters racism.
“Racism is not understanding what your brother or sister is about. If we’d really just take the time to get to know each other, we would be fascinated about what we learn about each other. If we could do that, we’d be better together than we are separate.”
Kingsburg Make A Change organizers Makayla Brumfield and Caleb Charles read a list of names of African Americans who’ve been unjustly killed over the decade. They started with Emmett Louis Till, 14 year old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Till was accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store.
Unity March attendees knelt with their fists raised as a show of solidarity as Brumfield and Charles read each name during a somber eight minutes and 46 seconds - the length of time George Floyd was pinned to the ground by his neck.
Speakers who took to the band stand at Lincoln Park included Selma Mayor Louis Franco and Selma Police Chief Joe Gomez.
Franco said their efforts to shine a light on racism were not falling on deaf ears as he’d heard from 21st Congressional District representative TJ Cox that represents Selma.
“[Cox] said that the work that your group is doing is being heard. So, you guys are making a difference,” Franco said. He described Selma as an inclusive community but said he’s aware that not all are treated fairly. Franco said that the real change will start with their grassroots level actions after the march.
“The fact of the matter is, when some of us leave our homes to do our daily activities - whether it’s to go to the bank, go to school, go to a business to buy a car or to a restaurant, or we go to City Hall to get a permit - depending on where you are in this country, you’re not treated equally or fairly just because of the color of your skin. It’s up to us as Americans, no matter where we live, to say that we no longer can stand for this kind of behavior.”
Chief Gomez agreed stating that while change will be hard for some officers, they too as a profession must examine themselves and make changes to eradicate racism.
“There’s police reform going on. It’s already happening because of people like you,” Gomez said addressing the marchers. “We are 100 percent with you on this. It’s going to be difficult. Some officers - with what’s happening now in policing in America - they may not be accepting. But change has come already and it’s going to happen,” he said congratulating the group for having a peaceful event.
Other members of JaShawn Banks’ family spoke including his wife, Maria de Jesus Banks, who grew up in Selma and attended schools here. She dealt with racism as a Mexican American, but said it was immediately more intense for her son when he started school.
“My son was called the n-word and he was suspended at least three times in kindergarten. Think about that. A kindergartner, a five year old, being suspended not once or twice, but three times. That’s the time they’re supposed to be there to learn. I’ve been talking about this for a long time. I’m tired as I hope you guys are tired. We need to do something and it starts today.”
JaShawn Banks, II, shared the history of Juneteenth with the audience before his father took the mic to share memories of when friends stood up for him. Banks, Sr., encouraged the audience to have the courage to speak out against racism wherever they see it.
“When you want to know what to do next, just step up when you see some injustice. Speak about it. Don’t be afraid to post it on your social media because you’re afraid of what’s going to happen. Don’t be afraid to stop somebody in a diner and say ‘you’re acting wrong.’ If we can do that, we change the bias. The bias changes racism and it can change everything.
A number of speakers took turns sharing their experiences, their outrage over centuries of racial injustice and Floyd’s death. But then they focused on how society can move forward through a combination of efforts.
Coligia Feliz spoke directly to officers present saying African Americans want equal protection under the law and to not be looked at automatically as thugs and criminals. She also asked them to ask hard questions of themselves.
“If the term ‘black lives matters’ bothers you, but ‘blue lives matter’ doesn’t bother you, then the reality is what bothers you is the word, ‘black.’ You need to be able to say ‘black lives matter’ and not have that bias.”
She others opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement to ask hard questions of themselves as well.
“If you see our people getting killed and shot on the news and in the media, and your first question is, ‘what did they do?’ Then recognize there’s a bias there. Those are the wrong questions. The right question should be ‘how does someone passing a fake $20 bill or someone drunk in their car escalate to death?’”
Chris Milton spoke last and continued to ask hard questions about the changes needed to end discrimination that lead to George Floyd’s death. He used a series of analogies to help audience members realize the struggle will continue, but it can be won.
Using Floyd’s dying words that have become a rallying cry for equality, “I can’t breathe,” Milton compared systemic racism to a doctor who refuses to slap a newborn child so it can take a first breath that’s so crucial for life.
“Society has taken our culture and held us upside-down by our feet, but never gave us that smack on the butt like it did to itself that jumpstarts the body. Then, we’re never turned right-side up so that we can breath and live a prosperous life. Instead, society has held us there to practice systemic racism.”
Milton said African Americans are told to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but responded that is difficult to do without strength that would come from being figuratively able to breath.
“Not only can we not find the breath to breathe, but consider the amount of extra effort that I must go through just to grab my boot straps, assuming I have boots in the first place? You’ve turned us upside down, kept us there holding the solution, holding success, holding growth over our head and still expect me to muster up the energy over and over and over again, all the while, I can’t breathe.”
Like a powerful elephant held captive by a thin shoelace only because he’s been conditioned since birth to think he’s held captive, Milton said it’s time for African Americans to realize they do have the strength to break free of racism.
“From the time each of us was born, we’ve all had an unspoken rope around necks similar to this. A rope was placed around our neck that limited our confidence and affected our mental health. A rope leads us to believe that we were living under a generational curse, but rather that was a by-product of the oppression that started from the time I lost my real last name.”
Ropes of oppression may have limited African Americans in the past as to where they could live, what kind of education and professional opportunities they could have, but no longer, Milton said.
“You can breathe today. Today, we snap that rope. Today, we’re free. Today, we claim our power and we go forward. We demand the life and liberty that the Pledge of Allegiance of this country proclaims.”
Moving forward, Resendez encourages others to read books such as Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be An Antiracist” to think about ideas about race.
“It’s important for us to be self-aware and then expose ourselves to the greater community and to black people, to get to know people,” she said. “If we don’t have the exposure and we’re taught a certain way from our parents - certain prejudices they hold - then we carry those with us not knowing we’re perpetuating that racist ideology.”
Laura Maldonado can be reached at 583-2427 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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