Angry and tired, thousands of March for Justice protesters say 'No more.'
Tired. Angry. Frustrated. But mostly tired.
That was how Brevard protesters described their reactions Saturday to the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the latest in a long line of African Americans to lose their lives at the hands of police.
"We're tired of seeing police brutality across the nation. We're tired of hashtagging 'justice for somebody,'" said Vickey Mitchner, one of the organizers of Saturday's "March for Justice" down Fiske Boulevard between Rockledge and Cocoa.
Cocoa police estimated the event drew between 2,500 and 3,000 people.
"Today we just decided to take a stand and say, 'No more,'" Mitchner said.
The crowd stretched several blocks as it marched along the route between Barton Avenue and State Road 520, waving signs and echoing chants of "No justice, no peace" and "Hands up, don't shoot" and "I can't breathe," one of the last things Floyd told police before he fell unconscious under the knee of Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin and eventually died.
Amid the noise, Marcus Lumpkin, a shelter coordinator for Crosswinds Youth Services in Cocoa, ambled quietly with the crowd, looking down at his feet.
"I'm just tired of seeing our black people keep getting killed for no reason, unarmed," he said. "I just want the same equal treatment. That's all."
Kevin Knowles, who was parked along the Fiske Boulevard march, said it's important to support a cause that affects not only African Americans but everyone.
"I feel like what happened (to Floyd) wasn't right. Justice will be served either way... I have to bring God to this," Knowles said.
Rockledge and Cocoa officers blocked off traffic along side streets to clear the march route as a Brevard County Sheriff's Office helicopter monitored the crowd from overhead.
Saturday's march through Rockledge was peaceful, despite social media rumors of potentially violent or inflammatory counterprotests in the days before the event.
Rockledge police arrested a 30-year-old man for an open carry violation along the march route just before it began around 3 p.m. The man was carrying a "long gun" and wearing body armor but expressed no social or political affiliation, Rockledge Deputy Chief Donna Seyferth told FLORIDA TODAY via text.
Among the protesters was Cocoa Mayor Jake Williams Jr., who wore a black “I can’t breathe” mask. Williams compared the size of the crowd to the city's annual Fourth of July event.
“This (march) is absolutely incredible," he said. "It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. It’s not about white or black. It’s about injustice. The outpouring of love that we see here is absolutely incredible."
The crowd also was joined by police chiefs from around the county, including Rockledge Chief Joseph LeSata and Cocoa Chief Mike Cantaloupe, who said the chiefs were there "in solidarity with everybody that's out here today."
Lumpkin noted their attendance but said it wasn't enough to make the changes the community and the country needs to see.
"It's a show of solidarity," he said. "But you can't stop here. We need to keep going until something is done."
Notably absent was Brevard's top law enforcement official, Sheriff Wayne Ivey. "We also invited Sheriff Ivey, but he did not respond to our requests for him to attend," said Mitchner.
Ivey, who did attend a candelight vigil for Floyd in Melbourne last Sunday, has faced renewed scrutiny in recent days for refusing to release a tape showing the events leading up to the death of 38-year-old combat veteran Gregory Edwards.
Edwards, who was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, died in December 2018 following a violent confrontation with deputies while being booked into the Brevard County Jail. As many as seven deputies joined the struggle to restrain Edwards, who was beaten, pepper-sprayed, shocked six times with a stun gun, handcuffed and strapped into a restraint chair with a spit hood covering his face before becoming unresponsive. He died the next day at the hospital.
The sheriff's office has cited a security exemption to Florida's open records laws as its basis to withhold the tape from the public.
Edwards's death and Ivey's decision to withhold the video became one focus of the event, with demonstrators sporadically chanting "Release the tape" and "Justice for Greg."
The march was one of several demonstrations around the county Saturday, including protests in Palm Bay and Canova Park in Melbourne.
The events come amid weeks of tension and nationwide protests over Floyd's death and law enforcement treatment of African Americans.
Floyd died after being restrained by officers during an arrest on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was caught on video kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, including four minutes after Floyd appeared to lose consciousness.
Chauvin and three other officers who stood by during the incident — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — were later fired from the force and are now facing charges in connection with Floyd's death.
Floyd's death was the latest in a spate of recent high-profile killings of African Americans, including Ahmaud Arbery in Gwynn County, Georgia, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, that have reignited a long-standing public debate over the treatment of black people by police.
Police and community leaders come together
Chiefs of multiple Brevard County police departments, including Rockledge, Melbourne, Cocoa and Palm Bay, were present at a town hall held at Emma Jewel Charter School in Cocoa after Saturday's march.
Speakers included Kathleen Edwards, Gregory Edwards's widow, and Cocoa attorney Alton Edmond.
“Dr. King would be ashamed of the state of our union. Over 50 years after his murder, we are still protesting for the very same rights that he marched for,” Edmond said. “When he talked about education and separate but equal being unfair… when we look at the state of our education system we see young black men lag far behind anyone else.”
In an emotional speech, Kathleen Edwards called her husband a "a good man" and " a good, good father," and again called on Ivey to release the video of the period preceding his death.
"I will never know how Gregory spent his final hours but others have seen the footage," she said. "I don't see the fairness in that."
"I love my country and respect law enforcement officers," she went on. "But I need to understand. I feel like they failed him that day and they're failing me now."
Gregory Edwards, she said, saved lives overseas as a combat veteran. "But he came home and died when he needed help? ... The one time he needed this country to save his life: where were they?"
Edmond said Sheriff Ivey was invited through multiple means to the town hall and that he did not reply. "It was read but he did not respond. Everyone else seems to have gotten the message," he said, gesturing toward the multiple police agencies present.
The police chiefs expressed understanding and mused on the need for broader changes to policing culture, but stopped short of offering specific solutions.
Cocoa police chief Mike Cantaloupe says his department is continually reviewing policies and working with the community to iron out best practices.
Chief David Gillespie with Melbourne Police Department said "it's not just policy, the biggest one being use of force policy. ... How do we deploy force that's proportionate to the level of resistance and what is the crime that occurred when the force is being used?"
He said he had directed his department to suspend training on the use of the vascular neck restraint, a type of restraint hold where an officer places an arm around a suspect's neck without blocking his breathing, although he said the technique was not part of department policy.
"At face value, systems are in place to make sure these things don't happen, but then they keep happening," said Palm Bay Police Chief Nelson Moya. "It's the culture of policing that varies from city to city in this country. What it truly comes down to is leadership."
Nobody's more angry about a bad cop than a good cop, Rockledge Chief LaSata said. "If you hire good people and bring to justice the police who need to be brought to justice, you won't have these types of problems."
"That's not going to happen on our watch," he said.
FLORIDA TODAY reporters Ricke Neale, Tyler Vazquez and Jeff Gallop contributed to this report.
Eric Rogers is the education watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Please consider subscribing to support important local news on education, business, crime and other topics you care about.
Contact Rogers at 321-242-3717 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EricRogersFT.