By Terrance Turner
Thousands of protesters gathered in downtown Houston this afternoon for a largely peaceful rally. Houston rappers Trae tha Truth and Bun B helped organize the demonstration in support of justice for George Floyd. (Mr. Floyd grew up in Houston’s Third Ward. In 2014, he moved to Minneapolis, where he was killed last week by former police officer Derek Chauvin.) Beginning at 3:00 pm, crowds of demonstrators amassed at Discovery Green.
Before the march officially kicked off, some participants were interviewed live. ABC 13 reporter Miya Shay interviewed Joanne Harris, who graduated from Jack Yates High School in 1959 (34 years before Floyd did in 1993). Harris said that the video of George Floyd’s murder impacted her greatly. “It was just devastating to me,” she said. “So it affected me tremendously.” As a black mother of black sons, she felt compelled to be there: “Every black person should be out here that’s able to walk or march,” she said.
Bun B asked the crowd to kneel and observe 30 seconds of silence before they began marching to City Hall at 3:30 pm.
At 4:00 pm, Bun B took the podium at City Hall to begin the speeches. He led the crowd to chant George Floyd’s name: “Say his name! Say his name!” Bun used his speech to advocate for police reform, with several elected officials standing nearby: “I plead with our mayor, our congresspeople, our council members: Please pass the bills needed to protect the black people of color from people hiding behind a badge on the streets.”
According to the Daily Beast, Bun B asked the crowd, on behalf of Floyd’s family, to keep the march peaceful. “If you see anyone instigating something, call them out,” he said. “The world is looking at Houston, Texas today. Let’s give them something to see.” (Full disclosure: I watched ABC’s live coverage of the event for more than three hours. But due to technical difficulties, I was unable to watch Bun B’s full remarks as he addressed the crowd.)
Also addressing the crowd was Trae Tha Truth, albeit with a more confrontational message. “Today we gonna make a motherf–king statement, period,” he told the crowd. “We ain’t backing down from s–t. We have to tear up this system from the inside out. It’s not just about the bad cops, it’s about the people above those cops.”
Rev. Bill Lawson, founding pastor emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, spoke next. He was a notable figure in the 1960s civil rights movement. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1960, he and his wife bailed out 14 Texas Southern University students who were arrested after staging a sit-in at a Houston lunch counter. Two years later, Lawson founded Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, which has been a mainstay in Third Ward for nearly six decades. (He is the father of KTRK anchor Melanie Lawson.)
“I hope that George Floyd has also energized us,” Rev. Lawson said, “and made us feel that we have to change this bad system.” He urged the protesters: “Keep mobilized, and don’t let this be a one-day parade.” He stressed that further action was needed in order to effect change. “The next thing you have to do is not march, but register & vote,” Rev. Lawson told the crowd. “We have to get out of office those people who feel they have to energize & make possible the actions of those who suppress black folks.”
By this time, the crowd was beginning to grow. KTRK reporter Marla Carter initially said that some 20,000 people had gathered downtown, but that number quickly multiplied. By 4:20 pm, the number of people attending had mushroomed to more than double the expected turnout:
At 4:30 pm, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner addressed the crowd. “I want you to know that your marching, your demonstrating, your protesting, has not been in vain,” he told the crowd. He also vowed that it was time for the City of Houston to “review our own policies, procedures, and practices” in regards to police violence. “We are not perfect. We recognize that,” he said. But the mayor emphasized a commitment to respect and inclusion: “In our city, we respect every single person. Every person is important. We have to commit ourselves to making sure that we do better every single day.”
He urged the crowd to respect the wishes of George Floyd’s family, who asked for nonviolent demonstrations. “Today, it’s about lifting up the family of George Floyd. It’s about supporting 16 members of his family,” Turner said, as Floyd’s relatives stood behind him. “When we go home, they still have to deal with a relative that is no longer here.”
“We want to love on them. We want them to know that George did not die in vain,” Mayor Turner said. “All that they ask is that as we march, protest, and demonstrate, that we do it in such a way that we do not deface his name. They want us to be peaceful! They want us to be peaceful.” That peaceful tone was echoed by the family of George Floyd, who spoke next.
“We got to do it the right way,” Floyd’s brother said, addressing the need for peaceful protests. Terrence Floyd decried the violence and looting that have plagued the streets ever since Floyd’s death. “You’re shaming all our names, not just his name,” he said, referring to agitators and rioters. “It’s bigger than my brother. We got kids growing up. We tryin’ to break the cycle right now. We got this,” he said. “Please, man, let my brother rest in peace.”
At about 4:45 pm, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee took the stage. She underscored Floyd’s roots in Third Ward, where he was well-known and cared for by residents. It’s a community Jackson-Lee herself represents. “Go around Cuney Homes,” she told those gathered. “Stand near Jack Yates [High School] and have people show you want George Floyd was all about. (Floyd graduated from Yates, where he also played football.)
“I don’t want to walk this journey again. It is time for a revolution of change,” she declared, “for justice for all of us, no matter our color.” She told the assembly that on Thursday, she plans to unveil what she called “revolutionary legislation”, named after George Floyd. The bill “talks about a new culture for police” that involves recruitment and de-escalation, she said.
But Jackson-Lee also made it a point to empower the audience through her words. “My friend [Al] Green and I have the privilege, and sometimes the challenge, of representing the most powerful nation in the world — the nation you own. This country is not of itself. You are this nation. And I come to you today for you to take your nation. Take your nation. It’s your country.” The crowd broke out into cheers and applause.
They were even more fired up after remarks by Cong. Al Green. “I am angry,” he told the crowd, voicing the collective, latent rage that erupted after the killing of George Floyd. Green expressed outrage about Floyd’s asphyxiation by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (now fired and criminally charged.) “We want an arrest, we want a conviction, and we want time! They’ve got to do some time.”
But Green added that mere charges and convictions aren’t enough. Like Jackson-Lee, he too is calling for broad and systemic change. “We’ve declared a War on Poverty,” Green said. “We declared a War on Drugs. We declared a war on cancer. It’s time to declare a war on racism in the United States of America.”
Circa 5:00 pm, the assembly concluded with a prayer by pastor John Gray. Pastor Gray once preached at Houston’s Lakewood Church; its pastor Joel Osteen (!!!) was in attendance. “This is our Emmett Till moment,” Gray told the crowd before beginning his prayer. “Let this anger turn into activism.”
The event remained largely peaceful throughout, although some minor skirmishes did break out after it ended at around 5:15 pm. Over an hour later, HPD Chief Art Acevedo was seen embracing and shaking hands with protesters at Walker and Crawford St. But as he made his way back to HPD’s downtown headquarters, he was confronted by angry protesters, asking why he hasn’t released body cam footage of 17 police shootings in Houston. As NBC News writer Mike Hixenbaugh reports:
As the sun began to set, after most of the estimated 60,000 marchers had gone home, a smaller group of activists surrounded Acevedo in the middle of a street and started demanding answers.
They wanted to know why his department had refused to release body camera footage from six recent deadly police shootings in Houston. Some in the crowd shouted insults, calling Acevedo a “f—— liar” and a “hypocrite.” As Acevedo turned away from the agitated crowd, someone doused him with a bottle of water. A man yelled for him to resign.“Houston’s police chief wins national praise — but faces local anger over shootings and transparency”, NBC News
The controversy was foreshadowed by Mayor Turner during his remarks. “No system is perfect,” he said. “And every day you’ve got to work at it, to gain the public trust.” That will be a challenge as protests continue.