By David Mazzenga
HONESDALE-- “What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
The above call-and-response chant was just one of many repeated throughout the evening in Honesdale's Central Park where hundreds of individuals flocked Thursday night for the Maple City's first ever Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest.
Speakers and demonstrators from parts of Wayne County and across the river in Sullivan County, New York congregated to speak out against racism and police brutality in memory of George Floyd, an African American man who died in police custody on May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Throughout the course of protest, seven speakers shared their experiences with racism and honored Floyd with a mix of poetry, anecdotes and a call for the country to do better, for its citizens to take an active, yet peaceful stand against racist speech and behavior.
The park was awash in a sea of signs calling for justice, and end to racism, commemorating Floyd and bearing his final words “I can't breathe.”
Before the speeches began, the protestors filed out of the park and began to circle its perimeter chanting “No justice, no peace!,” “Silence is violence,” and “Black lives matter!”
Leading the call and response for many of these chants was Daniel Austin Keesler, bearing an American flag and functioning as an event medic.
Keesler noted to him, the gathering in support of BLM “...means the dismantling of a corrupt system that we've had for too long now.”
“I'm tired of it,” Keesler added, noting he's experienced racism walking down the street.
“I'm tired of seeing these people being oppressed. And I'm tired of seeing these people get shot and killed because the color of their skin wasn't the color that was 'right'.”
He further called for the system to be torn down and rebuilt, pledging action if necessary.
So numerous were they that at one point the start and end of the procession encircled the park as it continued to march on.
At 5:25 p.m., symbolic of the date of Floyd's death, the protestors held a demonstration with a moment of silence lasting 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time Chauvin knelt upon Floyd's neck.
Recounting the history of African Americans, Caribbean Americans, and other persons of color in America Hanrii Padu said, “All together 445 years of pain. But, back then all lives didn't matter. Our lives didn't matter...How are all lives gonna matter, if our lives never mattered to y'all?”
While the BLM protesters remained peaceful, counter protestors were also present.
During one of the speeches, a heckler from the crowd repeatedly interrupted the speaker. Those with signs quickly mobilized to form a wall around the heckler, effectively blocking him from the speaker's sight.
Later, a group of vehicles sporting American flags, Confederate flags and flags in support of President Donald Trump circled the park, revving their engines, blaring their horns and calling out to those assembled.
Through each interruption, event organizer Amanda DeMasi encouraged the protesters to ignore the outbursts and remain peaceful.
On, then off, then on again
The initial idea to have a BLM protest came from Honesdale residents Olivia Galarza and Aleah Slish, explained organizer Amanda DeMasi.
“I saw them just kind of posing ideas about it on social media and I was immediately like, 'let's do this, we need to do this.', said DeMasi.
An initial demonstration was scheduled, but when threats started to roll in, DeMasi explained Galarza and Slish canceled the event for fear of public safety.
Not wanting to back down, DeMasi reorganized the event for the same time and place.
“Now's not the time to back down because that's only continuing the silence that we don't want to be a part of,” she said.
Having held the event together, DeMasi said she hoped it would be a bastion of unity.
“I'm looking to see my community come together,” she said. “I'm looking to see my community with open arms, looking to see the people of color, black people in my community having a place where they can come and be safe and have an open place to talk because it's important that their voices are heard. I'm tired of the silence.”
A community united
The diverse crowd gathered in Central Park on Thursday evening included a range of ages and skin tones speaking as one.
Representatives of different faiths were there as well, including Pastor Adam Reinhardt, minister at Saint. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church.
“I'm here to lend my office and amplify the message being sent,” said Reinhardt. “That message, of course, being that black lives matter and our government system does not treat them like they do matter. And until they do this is going to keep happening.”
“This is a movement that includes young, punk rock teenagers, old folks, religious and nonreligious alike,” Reinhardt continued. “And I'm here to say that the Christian faith demands justice for the oppressed.”
Several speakers over the course of the evening noted and commended the fact that a large portion of the attendees were white.
“I see a crowd full of allies,” said Ariana Hall, noting that frequently BLM protest crowds are primarily comprised of persons of color.
“When I see all of you here it's an extraordinarily moving feeling because allies are the entire base of this movement. Without allies there is no movement.”
The final speaker of the night, a surprise guest inspired to speak up after witnessing the other speakers, offered guidance for how to be an ally.
“We've talked about the 'what' and the 'why' plenty today, but not enough about the 'how,' of the individual actions that we can do every single day for a change,” he said, encouraging those assembled to invest in businesses owned and operated by persons of color and to keep the lessons and discussions presented at the protest alive each and every day.