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Birmingham protests peaceful by day; turns unruly Sunday evening

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June 1,2020: Scenes from downtown Birmingham at the destruction from the protest and riots on Sunday evening. (Marvin Gentry, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ameera Steward
For The Birmingham Times

With the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum on each side, Kelly Ingram Park in downtown was filled Saturday and Sunday with a diverse group of elected officials, activists and citizens from all over to protest police brutality and voice their anger at the death of George Floyd, the African American man killed by police in Minneapolis, MN early last week.

Late Sunday evening protesters in downtown began trying to tear down a Confederate monument and damaged a number of buildings and businesses.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin appeared on the scene and asked the crowd to leave before police stepped in. The Thomas Jefferson statue at the Jefferson County Courthouse, adjacent to the park, was damaged about 10 p.m. after someone set a fire at its base and several windows in the courthouse were broken by rocks thrown in the demonstration, according to AL.com.

Reporters at local media outlets also posted videos and other content showing attacks on journalists.

Those incidents marred what was otherwise a peaceful weekend of demonstrations in the city although at least 20 people were arrested in Hoover during demonstrations there.

In Birmingham on Saturday, State Rep. Neil Rafferty (D-54) said to a large group of demonstrators, “Today is about the people whose grievances go unheard, whose lives are marred by the injustices in our society which manifests in sudden violent forms through the pull of a trigger or a knee to the neck.

“But [which] also persists in slower more insidious forms for instructional violence seen in our healthcare disparities, inequitable school funding, the war on drugs targeting black bodies and the lack of access to safe, affordable housing and lack of opportunity,” he added.

Over the weekend, Woodfin, Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway, Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson and former mayor William Bell were among the nearly 1,000 people who gathered downtown to protest the killing of Floyd and call for justice.

Before the mayhem ensued on Sunday evening, Woodfin called Birmingham the “blueprint” for a nation divided by race, adding “the enemy is not each other . . . To say that we as a people are not better off today than we were 50 years ago … that dismisses the sacrifices of the foot soldiers that join us today.

On Saturday, Bell said, “Each time that we encounter a police officer no matter what the situation, our mind has to go into a different mode, our mind automatically goes into a survival mode.”

Pettway said he’s putting measures in place to ensure that what happened to Floyd does not happen locally.

It starts with the hiring process, and a check of social media sites to see what type of groups the officers are associated with, and deputies are also taught how to de-escalate situations, he said. “We’re not stopping until…we get what is called justice,” Pettway said.

Tyson on Saturday encouraged the attendees to vote for the people who are going to address the issues in our communities, because “our mothers [and] our grandmothers are tired. We’re tired of burying our children.”

“This is a state of emergency, it’s not going to end,” Tyson said. “We have to stand and band together…we have to go and vote in numbers, we have to make sure we get everybody out to this poll; show them what we can do with our vote. Burning things up is nothing …but when you vote somebody out, they’re going to catch hell getting back in. That’s where the power is.”

Civil Rights activist and attorney Faya Toure said blacks need to understand the power they can wield.

“We believe we’re inferior, we believe we’re not as smart, not as pretty. Until we kill that myth…we have to remember who we are, and when our children know who they are, it’s all over.

“I want you to turn your rage into organization…I want you to turn your pain into inspiration and passion. I want you to turn your presence here into solidarity…because it’s not just this one beautiful black man,” Toure said.