Protesters laid down for 4 1/2 mins on Wynn Dr. Protesters calling their movement #ShutItDownHSV marched from Oakwood University, down Wynn Dr. to University Dr. Friday Dec. 5th starting about 4:30PM. The group protested peacefully along University Drive before returning to Oakwood University. (Bob Gathany/bgathany@AL.com)
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on December 05, 2014 at 5:51 PM, updated December 06, 2014 at 10:02 AM
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- The high-profile deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers have generated protests across the country - and Huntsville is no exception. More than 300 Oakwood University students and others who are upset over the decisions not to indict those officers took to the streets to make their voices heard. The rain falling Friday evening didn't slow anyone down or muffle a single voice.
"Hands up! Don't shoot!," "I can't breathe!," "We want justice!," "We are America" These are just some of the phrases shouted in unison as the movement#ShutItDownHSV marched from Oakwood University along Wynn Drive and down University Drive shortly past Bill Penney Toyota. The chants and individual calls of emotion never ceased except twice when the movement took moments of silence for Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York. The protestors lay in the streets for several minutes both times. Huntsville police officers already had the streets blocked off when the protesters lay down.
The protest was a peaceful one, but it did cause traffic problems. Wynn Drive was shut off during the march, as was the nearby section of University Drive. This is a high-traffic area cut off during rush hour. Police diverted traffic and did not interfere with the march.
Oakwood University President Dr. Leslie Pollard Speaks to ProtestorsOakwood University President talks with protestors at beginning of rally. Protesters calling their movement #ShutItDownHSV marched from Oakwood University, down Wynn Dr. to University Dr. Friday Dec. 5th starting about 4:30PM. The group protested peacefully along University Drive before returning to Oakwood University. (Bob Gathany/bgathany@AL.com)
The march started at 4:30 p.m. with an address by Oakwood University President Leslie Pollard. He reminded the crowd the purpose was to protest the "right way." The university released statement earlier stating, "If you choose to participate, to do so peacefully and lawfully, in accordance with the laws of the city of Huntsville."
"A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but so is a life. So tonight we want to welcome you and we want you to feel right at home on this campus," Pollard said. "We're standing in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King."
Word of the protest spread quickly today on social media under the Twitter hashtag #ShutItDownHSV.
The participants took the president's words to heart. One such demonstrator, Jeremy Smith, said the injustice felt translates to all citizens, not just blacks. He said he and many of his fellows there felt it could have been any one of them that died, and the demonstration was about spreading the message that they want those feelings known.
Smith does not feel the actions that caused Brown's and Garner's deaths are symbolic of all police officers. He said the consequences of those responsible, however, must be taken seriously to battle continued "injustice."
"Between the issues of Trayvon Martin and the two recent altercations, it seems that our country is falling apart and right now we're in a state that we are scarred and right now what we need to do through is some healing," he said. "First we have to identify our enemy and our enemy is injustice. It is bigotry. And believe it or not, it's still racism."
That notion that racism is still alive resonated with much of the crowd, including one woman who was there with her 6-year-old daughter. She said it makes raising a black child more of a struggle, and that's why they "need their voices heard."
"We're not going to be silent on this matter," said Jordan Ways, another mam with the movement. "We're students here. This is out world and we're poised to lead it. We've endured too much too long."
Yahoiakim Ysrael found a Biblical message resonant in the recent events. He said the message behind Deuteronomy 28:64-68 encouraged him to come out in the streets that evening with the thought that the police-inflicted deaths were reminiscent of a forceful return to a submissive state. He said too many black men, especially younger men, are "either going to prison or going to the graveyard."
Oakwood University's media statement released ahead of Friday evening's protest reads: "We are deeply saddened by the recent losses of life that raise serious questions about justice and human rights. This is a deeply emotional time and these events have triggered a myriad of feelings with our students, faculty, and staff".
The university will also have a public assembly at 5 p.m. Sunday in Moran Hall to help develop an action plan to support the mission of "One Huntsville."
Pollard released a second statement following the protest.
"Tonight I stood among our students as they made their voices heard. I marched with them. I felt their unrest. I could sense that they wanted change and equality. As I looked at their faces, I couldn't help but think how this experience would change them forever. Being able to protest for change is a beautiful thing. And we are proud of how they conducted themselves in the midst of their pain and anger," he said. "We want to thank Oakwood University Police Department and Huntsville Police Department for their service tonight as our students peacefully made their way down the streets of Huntsville.