HANFORD — More than 500 people showed up at the Hanford Civic Auditorium Saturday to have their voices heard at a Black Lives Matter protest.

The protest began at 2 p.m. with people continuously flowing in for the next hour. A sea of signs with “Black Lives Matter,” “George Floyd” and “I can’t breathe” were held high by the hundreds in attendance.

Ashley Neely and Trey Gamble organized the protest after noticing a lack of response from community leaders, they said. 

“For me, I think I was searching for anyone from our community leaders to notice what was happening,” Neely, a Hanford resident and 2007 Hanford West graduate, said. “Just to acknowledge that their community is suffering when they see a black man die and I was getting upset that our community wasn’t speaking up.”

Neely was referring to George Floyd, the African American man who was killed by now-former police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes until he lost consciousness and died.

Hanford Police Chief Parker Sever, one of several notable community members in attendance, took the stage to denounce the actions of Chauvin and urged people to work together. He also added that one of his officers referenced the killing of Floyd and said, “Chief, if I ever do that, I hope you will not wait three days to arrest me.”

The Hanford Police Department as a whole released a statement on Thursday, which read in part, “The chain of events that led to the death of George Floyd were shocking; not just to the public but also to the law enforcement community.”

In addition to Sever, Representative TJ Cox, Mayor John Draxler and the Fresno State NAACP were present.

Cox also made his way on stage and detailed his experience with being called a racial slur when he was a young child. After finishing his speech, he took a knee with protesters and chanted “George Floyd.”

The protesters then marched around the block going south on North Douty Street, west on West Eighth Street, north on North Irwin Street and east on Center Street before making their way back onto Court Street and in front of the auditorium again.

“It’s beautiful,” Neely said about the protest. “When you live here in Hanford or places in the Central Valley, you feel like you can’t speak up. You feel like you’re going to get backlash from everybody. It was scary to even do the protest, but every day I saw more and more people say they’re going to come.”

After the march and for the next 90 minutes, more than a dozen protesters went up to the microphone and shared their experiences with racism and express their feelings on racial injustice.

Uriah Blackwell told the crowd about how he was going to graduate from UCLA in a week and his experiences with race.

“I had to get up because as a black student leader, I’m the only black male at my institution that has any leadership position,” Blackwell said. “I caught myself and realized that I was perpetuating the problem. I preach this so much when I’m in own my own space, but coming home I was being stagnant, so I chose to stand up and really push what I say forward and put myself on the front line.”

Blackwell was the chairperson for the Student Initiated Outreach Committee at UCLA, which helps get students of color into the university. He also attended Hanford West from 2012-2014 for his freshman and sophomore years.

A moment of silence was held for George Floyd as flameless candles were illuminated while the names of 25 African Americans killed by police officers were read aloud.

The Black Lives Matter protest came together in under a week. It started with the creation of the “Hanfords Peaceful Protest – Unite The Town” Facebook page on May 31. The “Peaceful Protest – Justice for George Floyd” event was posted soon after.

At that time, Neely said she was hoping to just get 50 people to join the protest. It eventually grew to include 35 volunteers to help provide water, set up the stage, help with crowd control and various other responsibilities.

“I want to show that there’s people here that care and they want to hear their voice and hear their problems and I did not expect any of this,” she said.

The protest remained peaceful throughout its entirety with no issues.

“To see this powerful movement here where I grew up, where I’m from, it really has made me happy,” Blackwell said. “It made me smile and … I think it’s just a blessing.”

Noe Garcia can be reached at (559) 583-2431 or ngarcia@hanfordsentinel.com. Follow Noe on Twitter at @noecarlosgarcia.

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