More than 1,000 people marched from the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial and Bayfront Festival Park to Duluth City Hall on Friday afternoon in celebration of Juneteenth and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Juneteenth is a celebration of the anniversary of the date in 1865 when Black slaves in Galveston Bay, Texas, finally learned they had been legally set free — more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The event is considered by many to be the nation's second independence day and marks the official end of chattel slavery in the United States.
Kia Vann, of Duluth, said the city's Juneteenth celebration typically involves a block party on Fourth Street, but that event was canceled this year because of concerns about the transmission of COVID-19.
This year, Juneteenth took on special significance for many, however, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police on Memorial Day, as well as numerous other high-profile reports of violence against Black people across the nation.
"It's not like that kind of thing wasn't happening before, but now people are paying attention," she said.
"This is not the way we want to celebrate Juneteenth," Vann said. "But we have to do something."
Vann said she was encouraged by the strong turnout and the involvement of large numbers of white people, as well as Black people and those of other heritages, at this year's Juneteenth march.
But she said, "My big fear is that the call for change and reform will peter out, that people will quiet themselves."
Garrett Kennedy, one of the event organizers, said society can't afford to squander the present opportunity.
"This is a time not just to wish for change. This is a time to enact change," he said. "Every generation has big moments for enacting change — big moments that without a doubt attract worldwide attention. This moment sounds a call for those of different generations to gather under the same umbrella of hope for change. This is our moment."
Organizers of the event said they decided to march on City Hall from two directions, advising participants that "because of the magnitude of our peaceful march and protest (and keeping in mind physical distancing measures for the safety of our communities) we have two starting locations with one convergence."
As people gathered for the march at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, a Native American group of drummers and singers led participants in a solidarity round dance.
“We are Natives for Black Lives Matter,” Rene Ann Goodrich said. As she helped lead people in a round dance, Goodrich told participants: “You are sending a prayer out with each step.”
Kym Young, a community activist, said: “I ask you to think about police accountability and defunding the police. That doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it does.”
“What we are demanding is that we defund the police, which means to demilitarize the police. All the army-grade weapons need to go,” she said. “There would be more money for the homeless. There would be more money for mental health services. There would be more money for child care services.
"There would be more money for a whole lot of things we need in this community. That does not include riot gear,” she said.
One of the speakers at the event, Terresa Moses, said: “This fight for Black lives is an exhausting and never-ending battle.”
She, too, supports the idea of defunding the Duluth Police Department and called on demonstrators to sign a petition in favor of redirecting police funding to other more productive services.
“If you’re standing in the crowd today and you don’t sign that petition, you haven’t done s--t for Black people,” Moses said.
At Bayfront, burning sage moved through the air.
It was Jordyn O’Brien’s first protest. It was important to show up and be “on the right side of history,” she said.
Terresa Moses and Sandra Oyinloye stood on the side, as Veronica Davis, Jaylah Willis, Breanna Ellison, all of Duluth, took the mic. Among them was Ruth Cabrera:
“I realized they treated my white dad like a coworker and they harassed my Black mom like she was subhuman. One is a relationship, one has trust and kinship and duty, and one has nothing, has no protection, has no humanity in front of the state,” Cabrera said, to applause and snaps.
The two marches converged on First Street, both chanting “Black lives matter,” as “This is America” blared overhead.
In front of Duluth City Hall, marchers were asked to pay tribute to George Floyd by holding their fists in the air in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time that he had been pinned to the ground under an officer's knee before his death.
“Whose shoulder hurts? Keep it up," one demonstrator said.
“George Floyd felt much worse," another pointed out.
“If you see a fist fall, I want you to support your brother or sister, or sibling," one demonstrator said into the mic in front of the crowd.
"It's hard," Kennedy said. "But this right here, gives me hope that we can stand unified under one cause."
Diona Johnson approached the mic. First, she asked for white people to allow Black people to move to the front.
Then, she asked for those near her to step back.
“I need to take up space in this big, Black, queer body," she said. "We’re straight up unapologetic in here.”
The crowd cheered loudly, before falling still and silent, as she belted out Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Her voice and demeanor breaking into tears near the last verse.
The march, at times, seemed as earnest, as it did joyful.
Organizers danced on the steps of City Hall as people chanted. The crowd supported and spoke positive affirmations when anyone held the mic.
“Us with white privilege, and every corner of the community, should take their part to make change, so this can be an actual movement, instead of just protesting,” Kiah Walker said.
“I think there’s a lot of love in the air,” Walker said.
Ingrid Hornibrook a public information officer for the city, praised the event.
"Tonight’s Juneteenth demonstration was a peaceful march where people were able to exercise their right to free speech without disruption in a safe environment," she said in a statement to the media. "Crowds have dispersed from Priley Drive and a small group of people is gathered at Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial. This event ended peacefully with no arrests or citations."