FORT WALTON BEACH — Chanting "Black lives matter!," "I can’t breathe!," "Stop police brutality!," and the call-and-response, "What’s his name? George Floyd!," an estimated 250 people marched from the Fort Walton Beach Landing to Uptown Station early Sunday evening, protesting the ongoing string of deaths of black men in police custody across the nation.
At about the same time a few blocks away, at a religious vigil organized by the Okaloosa County NAACP, dozens of cars filed into Chester Pruitt Park off Hollywood Boulevard for an event called "Harnessing the Storm: Vigil and Call to Action Honoring Our Fallen Family Members."
Both events came just days after a 46-year-old black man died at the hands of Minneapolis police, sparking continuing protests that have turned into riots in some U.S. cities.
Neither of the Sunday events in Fort Walton Beach carried even the slightest hint of violence, even as cable television news reports on Sunday remained filled with scenes of destruction and violence elsewhere in the country as protesters — and provocateurs — took to the streets.
George Floyd died while being taken into custody after allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. Video from the scene shows Floyd lying in the street behind a police vehicle, repeatedly saying "I can’t breathe," while one of four officers keeps his knee on Floyd’s neck. That officer has been charged with thrid-degree murder and manslaughter.
Marlon McLaughlin, a young organizer of Sunday’s rally and march in Fort Walton Beach, repeatedly warned the crowd gathering at the Landing to hear a string of impromptu speeches that property damage, looting and violence would not be tolerated. The crowd readily and completely obliged.
"I keep reiterating to everybody that we’re here for peace," said McLaughlin. "But," he added, "things have got to stop."
The long string of problematic deaths of black men in police custody "sends us into a state where we don’t know what to do," he added.
Another march organizer, Akeem Clayborne, said that, sadly, he isn’t surprised that deaths of black men in police custody continue to be an issue. And, he said, "We shouldn’t have to deal with the same things over and over again."
Among the people gathered at the Landing for Sunday’s march were Kelsey Plumlee, Khira Hooker and Mia Pierce. All three are serving in the Air Force locally, and recognize that Pierce and Hooker, who are white, would be treated differently than Plumlee, who is black, if they were stopped by police.
"The system really does need to change," said Plumlee, minutes after she’d shared a tearful moment with her two friends.
"She’s been very supportive," Pierce said.
Elsewhere at the Landing, 17-year-old Alexa Singletary waited for the march to start with her father, Hankuk, 46, and a family friend, 31-year-old Teirra Whitfield.
"I’m tired of seeing our people just die just for the color of their skin," Alexa Singletary said.
Whitfield, who has two sons, said part of the reason she attended the march was to help ensure that the deaths of black men at the hands of police come to a stop.
"I don’t want to stand here if that was one of my sons," she said.
Hankuk Singletary had a broader view of the issue, calling it "a matter not so much of race, but of right and wrong. We shouldn’t be afraid of the police."
A short distance away, as marchers from the protest at the Landing prepared to make their way down the Eglin Parkway sidewalk — with Fort Walton Beach police officers in patrol cars clearing intersections ahead of them — Terrance Bulger, pastor of Greater Peace Missionary Baptist Church, lined up cars along Carson Avenue for the short drive to the vigil at Chester Pruitt Park.
Organizers had intended for folks to socially distance by staying in their cars during the prayer vigil, but many attendees ignored the plan.
Previewing his message for the day as dozens of cars stretched along Carson Avenue, Bulger said he wanted people to understand that injustice endured by one group could be a precursor to injustice being visited on other groups of people, lessening the dignity of more than just black men.
"The bandwidth of our demographics is affected by injustice," he said. And, he added, in the face of the circumstances now faced by black men, "Silence is consent. Silence is complicity."