BATAVIA — Passionate speakers. A crowd dedicated to justice.
Hundreds of people showed up for Sunday’s protest in the city and remained peaceful throughout the demonstration, using words to cast their message rather than violence and disorder. Rather than antagonistic rhetoric, the vast majority of protesters seemed to speak only to elicit change.
“We are going to show that Batavia can do a peaceful protest in between all of the riots that are going on,” Greg Munroe, one of the gathering’s organizers, said that morning. “Show that we can do it the right way; get out of here peacefully without anyone being arrested. Our voices will be heard.”
Those voices were heard by many passersby throughout the early morning and into the afternoon, as countless vehicles drove down Main Street in Batavia, honking their horns in apparent support of the protest with only a single vehicle attempting to get a rise out of the group. The most-productive moment of the day was when city and county officials, along with law enforcement came to join the protesters in front of City Hall.
It was a show of unity in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis, and many others.
“Far too long have you put your knees on our necks,” said organizer Victor Thomas, alluding to the incident that led to the death of Floyd, after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder in the Floyd case. Three other police officers who failed to intervene have been charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin in Floyd’s alleged murder.
“Far too long have we been deprived to have decency in our community,” Thomas said, using a bullhorn. “Today is the day they hear us.”
Hundreds of protesters gathered at City Hall and marched to the area between the Genesee County Jail and City Police Department. As they marched down West Main Street they yelled “No justice, no peace!” and “Black lives matter!”
Many also carried signs that said such things as “We will not be silenced,” “Black is Not a crime,” and “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”
Sunday’s March for Justice went well and there will be an effort to build on that, said Macy Paradise of Batavia,
“I expected a great turnout,” said Paradise, who said he heard an estimated 400 people showed up. “I thought it was incredibly successful. It was very heartwarming to see our whole community come together and support such an incredible event and cause.”
Sunday morning’s march began in front of City Hall. During the rally protesters spoke out against the systemic treatment of black people and talked about issues they’ve had with police, along with trying to get jobs locally.
Many people had the chance to share their emotions or talk about something that had happened to them or someone they know.
Faith Bennett of Albion was in tears as she talked about how she has been treated.
“As a black high school student, I am hurt,” she said. “I am done being discriminated (against) by my teachers. I am done being discriminated by my classmates. I’m done being told how I should dress. ... I am done being told how to do my hair, how to do my makeup ... I am done being told how to look, how to act.
“It is so hard to not be able to walk around town with my black father without a police officer five steps behind us, but yet, when I’m with my white mom, I’m OK because I’m not a threat because my mom is white,” she said. “It is so hard to be on both sides. I’ve seen the white discrimination. I’ve seen the white privilege. I’ve seen the black poverty and the black hurt and I’m sick of it. I am human and I am just as worthy as everyone else here.”
Speakers shared individual stories of what they’ve experienced. Among them was Haven Armstrong, who said his mother has mixed-race children.
“Do you understand the amount of racism and the comments that have been said to them over the years?” he asked. “My mom feels out of touch with white people because they treat her as a black person. How does she act? She acts like a black person because she’s subject to that. She feels the community and she feels safe there. I should not have to warn my son before he leaves to go to the store, ‘Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t look dangerous.”
That situation, Armstrong said, stops today.
“If you leave here today and nobody does anything else, what did we do?” he asked. If people are mistreated, he said, they should take the issue to city hall.
Another speaker, Michael Henry of Batavia recalled something that happened seven years ago to his son J’zen Richardson, who was 14 at the time. J’zen, who is biracial, was crossing Hutchins Street with a white friend to go to Henry’s office when an officer put handcuffs on J’zen, while letting his friend — who had been doing the same thing — go. The police eventually let J’zen go.
“Having a son, I saw a lot of him and his young friends treated differently for no reason at all,” Henry said. “I don’t have to have to one day worry that it will be him that I see on the TV killed for no reason or killed for a minor violation.”
Early in the protest, police had been watching from across West Main Street. They joined the protestors in front of city hall.
Armstrong credited them with taking this first step. His brother, Brandon Armstrong, said the police need to take action.
“If you’re here, when you leave here, we need you to put things in action,” Brandon Armstrong said.
At least one teenager said she shouldn’t have to be afraid to call the police when she’s in trouble. More than one speaker said things need to change and demanded action by the police.
Munroe said Sunday’s protest cannot be a one-time deal.
“This is not a one-off thing. We are going to be a part of our community going forward,” said Munroe. “This is about Batavia, this is about black people, this is about our community, this is about equality. That’s why we are here. Period.”
The March for Justice included its share of children, whose parents brought them to the gathering — watching, observing and participating as the national moment played out locally.
Paradise and others noted the effect.
“Kids are not necessarily born with hate in their hearts,” Paradise said. “I felt like the kids speaking was the most influential part of the whole protest. Hearing some of the young voices really shows how much they are a victim of racial discrimination in our community. It really hit home and helped drive home the point of the whole protest.
“We have to crawl before we walk,” he continued. “Together we’re learning how to walk and how to change the movement a little bit. Hopefully by the time the kids are our age, we’ll be running.”
Paradise said he thought the march, planned by Victor Thomas, Brandon Armstrong, Haven Armstrong and Munroe, was done extremely well.
“I know with the times, it’s important to follow the lead of the black community,” he said. “I think we really did need the protest. It’s really all the voices coming together and listening to some of the leaders of the black community. I wouldn’t do anything different.”
Paradise said there are different groups on Facebook that are pretty proactive, keeping news and articles that are relevant to the full movement. One is called Embrace Racial Equality, which used to be Community Against Social Injustice. Paradise said he changed the name so it would be more proactive and less negative.
There are plans for a follow-up event, Paradise said, and something may be announced later this week.
“It really is still to be determined,” he said. “The ultimate goal for all of us is to keep the foot on the gas, so to speak.”
Paradise said he plans to attend City Council meetings.
“I know there are a few of us that are looking into the potential for City Council,” he said. “I talked to Greg this morning and the long-term goal is to diversify City Council. I will definitely be attending and I’m an ally.”
Batavia Police Chief Shawn Heubusch said the March for Justice was extremely well-organized.
“Myself and other law enforcement leaders met with the organizers ahead of the event and had constant communication with them up to and after the event. They were very good to work with and I feel planned for their event very well.”
The police chief said he, Sheriff William Sheron Jr., Le Roy Police Chief Christopher Hayward, Batavia City School District Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr., City Council President Eugene Jankowski Jr. and Police Chaplain Don Shirk participated in the demonstration and march along with uniformed officers from the city of Batavia Police Department and Genesee County Sheriff’s Office.
A large contingent of officers worked Sunday to aid with the crowd and traffic control, Heubusch said.
“I am extremely proud of the men and women in uniform that worked this event and those that participated in helping keep it a peaceful event,” he said.
The agencies that were represented included the city of Batavia Police Department, Genesee County Sheriff’s Office, New York State Police, Le Roy Police Department, Attica Police Department, Perry Police Department, Warsaw Police Department, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Homeland Security and the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Unit.
The city of Batavia Fire Department, city of Batavia Department of Public Works, Mercy EMS, Genesee County Office of Emergency Management, Genesee County Highway Department, New York State Office of Emergency Management and town of Batavia Fire Department supported the event.
There were no arrests or significant incidents during the March for Justice, Heubusch said.
“There was an arrest long after the event, not associated with the organized event, of an individual that obstructed vehicular traffic and was charged. Another individual was charged for attempting to interfere with the initial arrest.”
Sheron also said the March for Justice was peaceful.
“We had met with one of the organizers (Greg Munroe) ahead of time and we were well-aware the demonstration was going on. ... They assured us that it was going to be peaceful,” Sheron said. “There was communication going on between the chief of police and the organizers prior to that. We felt that we should be there to show our support for a peaceful demonstration.”
Sheron said the meeting Friday was to get logistics and see how many people organizers were expecting.
“I thought the crowd was peaceful ... they were expressing concerns they had with law enforcement, things they would like to see changed with law enforcement, and we were there to listen to those concerns,” he said. “I think it’s important to listen to community concerns and these protesters are a part of the community. As law enforcement officials, I think we need to listen to people in our community and take to heart what they have to say.”
Sheron thanked organizers, public officials and community members for helping to make the demonstration peaceful.
“I would also like to sincerely thank and recognize all the local, state and federal law enforcement officers, correction officers and Emergency Services dispatchers for their professionalism,” he said. “Once again, we saw the cooperation amongst our law enforcement agencies, government officials and community leaders. Genesee County is an amazing community that I am proud to have lived in my entire life. Working together, we can move forward to address the many concerns that were voiced yesterday.”
Jankowski said Sunday that he and other local leaders walked over to the protest at City Hall.
“We met with the organizers and we had a very nice conversation,” Jankowski said. He said he mainly listened to the discussion.
“What I heard was a lot of emotion and a lot of passion. The speakers were upset, with some valid concerns,” he said. “I want to help. I have offered my help in any way I can. This is not going to go away unless we remind ourselves to do better as a community.”
Staff writer Alex Brasky contributed to this story.