ALBANY — Anthony Branch set the tone Saturday for a peaceful protest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by imploring the younger protesters to “start a dialog about that incident and other police violence in a positive way.”
Between 40 and 50 protesters had gathered in a vacant lot between Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and the Hardee’s restaurant on Slappey Boulevard early Saturday afternoon for what was a peaceful protest, a stark contrast to destructive and violent gatherings in major cities across the nation.
“I suggest we contain our protest here — if we march to the mall as some have suggested, that could lead to looting, and I don’t think anyone here wants that,” Branch, a retired military officer, said. “Let’s reach out to our elected officials — to (Albany Police Department) Chief (Michael) Persley, to the sheriff (Kevin Sproul) to the mayor (Bo Dorough) and ask them to come to us. Let’s start this dialog in a positive way, not in the negative way we’ve been seeing across the country.
“If we go in and destroy people’s businesses, our leaders are going to have to deal with that before they can address the issues that concern us.”
A protester, Brenda Battle, also encouraged a peaceful demonstration.
“Look, our police are here with us,” Battle said. “They’re with us. Let’s show the world how we do things in Albany, Georgia.”
The crowd that gathered held up signs and chanted as they lined up alongside busy Slappey Boulevard, joined in their protest by Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher and Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler.
“I’m here today because I heard a little while ago something was going on here,” Fowler said. “So I decided to come over; it’s what I do. We have the right in this country to peacefully demonstrate, and I respect the people who do that. But there’s a right way to do things. What those people are doing in other parts of the country — burning businesses and marching in the street to stop traffic is not only dangerous, it doesn’t make sense.
“I think it’s a positive thing when people come together to make a statement, and I support that right. But when you go in burning businesses in a community like Albany that has a number of African American-owned businesses, and in a city that already has food deserts, you’re making the wrong statement.”
Fletcher said she was touched by the unity she saw among the demonstrators.
“A protest done for the right reason is a powerful thing,” the Ward III commissioner said. “Doing these things for the wrong reason only destroys. Everyone out here today is doing this in the right manner, and they did it with prayer. I pray that everyone will listen to the voice of reason from people like Mr. (Anthony) Branch, who showed true leadership today. Being part of this peaceful protest made me proud to be an Albanian.”
The crowd was racially mixed, with about half of the protesters black and half white.
Justin Seidenfader, who is white, walked a lone vigil along Slappey holding up signs that said “Honk for Justice” and “Justice 4 Arbery & Floyd.” He said he came to protest the treatment of blacks by police in this country.
“I have a lot of friends who are black, and I think what’s happening to them in this nation is a shame,” Seidenfader said. “Police have gotten to the point where they think they can get away with anything. If you or I had done some of the things they do, we’d be arrested and go straight to jail. They are using their badges and force to do things that are not in any way legal.
“I wanted to be here today to peacefully say — without breaking any laws, that’s why I’m continuing to walk — what’s going on in America is wrong.”
Another white man, who said his name is Matlock Duyba, said he’s been protesting against police brutality since the Rodney King beating that touched off riots across the country in the 1990s. He held up a sign Saturday that said “Black Lives Matter.”
“I’m from Detroit, but I’ve been down here the last six or seven years,” Duyba said. “In Detroit, they had a bad problem with corrupt police who carried out systematic terror against blacks in that city. I have a son who is black, and I’m out here today because I fear for his and his brother’s lives.”
A number of Albany Police vehicles were on the scene at around 1 p.m., the time that the protest was to have started. The officers went to surrounding businesses and informed management of those establishments that some kind of protest was planned but that they expected no violence. Krispy Kreme locked its doors and kept only its drive-thru open.
Police also handed out bottles of water to the demonstrators, some of it brought to the protesters by Jacob Adams.
“I just want these folks to know that I support what they’re doing,” Adams said. “I just thought this was the right thing to do. I don’t want to be a party to any violence, but these folks are doing this the right way.”
One of the first to arrive among the protesters was Vilnis Gaines. He said he came to show “peaceful support” for what was planned.
“We’ve got to stop police brutality in this country; that has to be corrected,” Vilnis said. “It’s ridiculous that the situation (with Floyd) escalated to that point.”
Jordan Blackshear said she too was appalled at the treatment of Floyd.
“If either you or I had been the ones involved, that would not have happened to us,” she said. “And the only difference would have been that you and I are white. I’m here today to say that is not OK.”