TUPELO • Hundreds on Saturday peacefully marched from the Lee County Courthouse to Tupelo City Hall to denounce police brutality and systemic racism and demand reforms of local law enforcement.
For three and half hours, protesters, most of whom wore masks to comply with healthcare recommendations, chanted “black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace.”
The event was organized by Indivisible Northeast Mississippi, a local grassroots movement that promotes progressive policies. The protest was organized in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota police officers. One of the police officers pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes.
“We’re not just here for unity, we’re here for change,” said Hannah Maharrey, one of the lead organizers of the event.
Several community leaders also addressed the crowds to speak out on ways citizens can come together to effect change, such as voting, contacting city officials and getting to know neighbors.
The Rev. Randy Jones, the pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church, said that as a black man, he’s tired of witnessing countless racial injustices occur in the country, such as black Americans making up the majority of incarcerated citizens.
“The system isn’t broken – the system was designed to keep us enslaved,” Jones said.
The Rev. Phillip Parker, the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, said this week he’d been contemplating on what the role of the church should be in promoting racial equality in the country, only to realize that the church has simply failed in addressing it.
“I learned that I have privilege in this country,” he said. “Privilege that I did not earn. Privilege that has nothing to do with the college degrees that I have or the books that I’ve read. Privilege that has been given to me only because of the color of my skin, and I will admit that.”
While the organizers spoke out against the killings of black Americans around the nation, several of the attendees drew attention to local and state events such as local police profiling citizens, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith when she said she would invite someone to a “public hanging,” and the death of Antwar “Ronnie” Shumpert, a black man in Tupelo who died at the hands of a white police officer in 2016.
A grand jury failed to indict the Tupelo police officer who was involved in the shooting. A civil suit over Shumpert’s death dismissed in federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.
“I’m tired of it. We’re sick and we’re tired,” Keturah Montgomery said. “I feel like if you’re an officer, and you know that you’re racist in your heart, this is not the job for you.”
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton and leaders within the city's police department responded to the concerns of the citizens. Shelton responded by saying that he knows he has let down some people within the community and hasn’t met certain expectations from constituents but the only thing he can do now is move forward and try to do “the best that I can.”
“I have never once said that systemic racism does not exist in our society or even right here at home,” Shelton said. “The only thing that we can do is fight that and fight that together. To the family of Ronnie Shumpert, I want you to know that I am very sorry about what happened. I’m very sorry that that occurred.”
Earlier this week, police department leaders, community officials and elected leaders met to discuss possible future reforms to implement in the city. Shelton said that the city must start sharing the positive things the police department was doing and said the administration is working on allowing greater public access to body cameras of police officers.
Anthony Hill, a deputy Tupelo police chief who is a black male, told attendees that he hopes this event sparks a series of continuing conversations that will lead to change within the community.
“Let’s continue to have these conversations,” Hill said. “We can talk, but you’ve got to have action and you’ve got to see it. And that’s something that we’re going to do as a police department.”