As the tune “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye floated through the thick summer air, protestors gathered on the steps of the Lamar County Courthouse in downtown Paris for a night of peaceful demonstration on Thursday. Organized by local activist Brenda Cherry, the protest was intended to support the Black Lives Matter movement, the ending of police brutality and the removal of a Confederate monument that stands outside the courthouse — an issue that has ruffled the feathers of many in Paris recently.
Last week, two online petitions were started — one in support of the Confederate monument being removed from the courthouse and placed on private property or in a museum, and the other demanding that it stay put. Both have been gaining steam.
Once “Love Train” by the O’Jays came blasting through the speaker, more demonstrators trickled in holding signs painted with slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “History Belongs in a History Museum.” It was time for a spirited opening prayer from pastor Kendall McAfee. Raucous replies, applause and cheers burst from the crowd as McAfee delivered his speech, some raising their hands to the sky in praise, others bowing their heads in prayer.
“Even the people who may not agree with us, we pray for a special blessing over them right now,” McAfee exclaimed. “We pray that you will touch them right now.”
After McAfee, it was Kristine Gray’s turn on the microphone. Gray, a Paris resident, offered a statement of solidarity with the black community before performing a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that had the crowd singing and swaying with her.
“I’m here because I’m tired,” Gray said. “I don’t know if you other people who look like me are tired, but you should be.”
Following her song and a round of applause, Gray passed the microphone to Cherry, who listed the names of many black people who have been killed at the hands of police in the past few years, including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner. Cherry also emphasized the peaceful nature of the protest, denouncing the violence that ensued at other protests around the country.
“I organized this event to join us together in love, unity, respect and change,” she said. “The murder of a black man by police is nothing new. It’s been woven into the fabric of American culture since slavery ended.”
Cherry continued by explaining why she stands by the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” to which others have responded with “All Lives Matter,” referencing the killing of George Floyd, who was pinned to the ground under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
“It’s like that knee symbolizes the black experience in America,” she said. “There has been an awakening. People who didn’t understand now understand. They understand why we say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ We say it because we have been treated like our lives do not matter.”
Throughout the protest, an onlooker, Bill Pontius, sat across the street from the courthouse with his dog by his side. Pontius said he’s in support of protestors who are exercising their right to free speech, but that by saying “Black Lives Matter,” it excludes others who aren’t black.
“We should be saying ‘All Lives Matter,’ because I want everybody to be loved,” Pontius said. “I don’t want one group to be loved… I agree with this (protest) because I do believe that black lives should matter, but all lives should matter. I don’t treat anybody (in a racist way). I love everybody. There is no racism. The people that make the racism are the people that are complaining that we’re not treating them fairly.”
Pontius also shared concerns about the removal of the Confederate statue, namely the process.
“Just like the people in Dallas are saying they want the (Confederate) statue removed — that’s $400,000,” he said. “I think $400,000 could be used a lot better. If anybody wants it moved, they should pay for it to be moved. I don’t want it (coming out of) taxpayer dollars, I don’t want it out of state dollars. It’s been there for 100 years and nobody’s complained about it…”
Following an emotional performance of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” by local Steven Harris and a speech about recognizing and acknowledging white privilege by Patti Haney, who told a story about her friend’s daughter who was told in the 1980s she had to wait to drink from a water fountain until the white children had finished, pastor McAfee spoke again.
“Even with the pride I have of being an American, I also have to realize that there are problems in our justice system,” McAfee said. “As much as we may want to turn a blind eye and act like they’re not going on, I’ve learned that you can never conquer your giants until you face them.”
McAfee praised police officers for their work, saying he respects their dedication to keeping people safe, but Cherry’s son Rico respectfully disagreed as he took to the steps.
“I respect everything (McAfee) said, but I have a different perspective,” Rico said. “I am fearful of the cops. I don’t respect them… I am scared of being out here because I could be next. Everyday I wake up, I wonder if I’m going to be able to go to sleep at night just because I’m black… If you’re not black, you don’t understand how scary it is to be a black man or woman in America, when all you have to do is go outside and you could get killed.”