As a nationwide trend of protests against police brutality continues, Benton became the latest west Kentucky community to host a protest, with a few hundred demonstrators marching around courthouse square Friday night.
At times demonstrators lay down in the streets by the courthouse in remembrance of George Floyd, who was killed in a police incident last month, and sang “Happy Birthday” to Breonna Taylor, who would have turned 27 on Friday.
Taylor was killed in a police incident in Louisville in March, and her story, like Floyd’s, has been a catalyst in sparking protests across Kentucky, the U.S., and parts of the globe.
For Dwaylon Davis, who organized the Benton event with his wife, Hope Davis, the deaths struck a chord and convinced him to get involved pursuing racial justice.
“This was just weighing really heavy on my heart, what happened to Mr. Floyd, what happened to Breonna Taylor,” Davis said Friday night.
“When does it stop?”
Davis said he “jumped in with both feet,” after attending protests in Paducah and Mayfield, believing the Marshall County community needed to address the issue.
“I think a lot of people, they feel like they’ve been silent for too long. They want change, and they want their voices to be heard,” he said.
Davis stressed the event was not anti-police, and refused to paint all police officers as bad or prone to excessive force.
“We just want to create an open dialogue so people can get to talking and understand each other better.”
Jerika Freeman, 17, said she never knew she was black until she moved to Marshall County at about 10 years old.
“I didn’t realize that I was different than these (white) people until they pointed it out all the time,” said Freeman, a senior at Marshall County High School, who participated in the protest.
When she moved to the county, “I figured out there was such a thing as the rebel flag. I figured out the definition of the rebel flag. I learned because I didn’t have a choice but to learn.”
Freeman said she sees many in the community as “reluctant to change,” but said change is coming nonetheless, with an increasing population of people of color.
“I think (education) starts in our schools and our workplaces,” she said.
Benton Police Chief Stephen Sanderson said the police department supports protests against police brutality.
“Nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop,” Sanderson said.
Police blocked off the streets around the courthouse both for traffic flow and to protect protestors from danger, Sanderson said.
Some tension had surrounded the event after a call that spread on social media for Second Amendment supporters to show up armed in case the protest turned “non-peaceful,” but the event concluded without incident.
“We’re trying to bridge the gap and trying to be protectors and serve, and you’ve got a couple bad apples that spoil that,” Sanderson said of police who give law enforcement a negative reputation.
He noted the police department hired its first minority officer last year, and said showing the community the department is not biased or violent begins with proactive engagement and building relationships.
“I think it starts out there in the community, working with them … really just showing that we’re here for them. We’re here to protect equally,” Sanderson said.
Davis said he hoped a peaceful demonstration would help people challenge their biases.
“Maybe we can open some minds and some hearts and get them thinking differently about how they handle things, how they perceive people of color,” he said.
“We’re not anti-police. We’re not anti-white people. We’re just anti-racism.”