‘If Mississippi is ready for change, then everybody is’: Historic crowd of thousands packs streets of Jackson to protest racial inequities

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Protesters listen to speakers while in front of the Governor’s Mansion during the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Jackson, Miss., Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Thousands of Mississippians gathered Saturday afternoon in downtown Jackson for a peaceful protest against police brutality, inequities in the criminal justice system and state-sponsored Confederate symbolism.

A multi-racial crowd of at least 3,000 people — which some believe is Jackson’s largest demonstration since the civil rights movement — packed the streets for the protest in the hot June sun. Chants of “I can’t breathe!” and “Black lives matter!” and “No justice, no peace!” echoed down Capitol Street outside the Governor’s Mansion as organizers rallied the crowd.

A group of 15 activists — college students and young professionals — organized the Black Lives Matter Mississippi protest in the wake of the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. In planning the event, organizers took inspiration from key figures of the civil rights movement.

“Bob Moses reminded us that when you want to look at America, you gotta look where? At Mississippi,” said Maisie Brown, an 18-year-old activist who was a co-organizer of the protest. “If Mississippi is ready for change, then everybody is ready for change.”

Brown continued: “America thought that our humanity was a question. And for the past 12 days of unrest across the United States, we’ve answered that question. Our humanity is not up for discussion, it’s not up for debate, and we will no longer beg anybody to make sure we can live a fruitful and equal life.”

The event began at the Governor’s Mansion at 3 p.m. with speeches from organizers and guest speakers. The crowd later marched through the downtown streets toward the Mississippi State Capitol and then returned to the mansion. Toward the end of the protest around 4:45 p.m., organizers outlined their call to action, asking people to donate to the Black Lives Matter bail fund, hold their community leaders accountable, vote, and educate themselves. 

Separately, the group had a list of demands that include removing Confederate symbols and memorabilia, reopening the Ricky Ball case, decreasing the state’s prison population, and centering public health in decisions involving schools returning in the fall because of the coronavirus. The full list can be viewed here.

After protesters wound their way through downtown Jackson and returned to the Governor’s Mansion, the protesters remained silent for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd’s neck last month.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Protesters hold signs as they march during the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Jackson, Miss., Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Thousands of handmade signs were on display Saturday, which bore phrases like “your silence is violence,” “defund police,” “my melanin is not a threat,” and “I can’t breathe.” With temperatures on Saturday surpassing 90 degrees, organizers passed out free water and snacks to attendees.

There was virtually no visible police presence during the entirety of the protest. Uniformed Mississippi Highway Patrol officers watched from inside the gated confines of the Governor’s Mansion — some handed out water outside the entrance — and Capitol Police watched carefully from the doors of the Capitol as protesters marched by.

Jennifer Riley Collins, the Hinds County administrator who unsuccessfully ran for attorney general in 2019, spoke to the crowd and took direct aim at Mississippi public officials who have drawn ire for their actions in recent weeks: Attorney General Lynn Fitch for her decision to dismiss the Ricky Ball case, Petal Mayor Hal Marx for his social media comments about George Floyd’s death, and Madison County Prosecutor Pamela Hancock for her comments suggesting she hopes a “deadly strain” of the coronavirus spreads among rioters that she later suggested was “kind of a joke.”

“We hear your words when you try to say, ‘It’s just a joke,'” Riley Collins said. “My life, our life, black lives are not a joke.”

One key focus of protesters was Mississippi’s state flag, which is the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem. Several times during the rally and the march on Saturday, under the shadow of the state flag at both the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol, protesters chanted: “Change the flag!”

Near the end of the event, organizers thanked the protesters and encouraged them to stay civically engaged. They specifically mentioned the Nov. 3, 2020, general election, and several people were distributing voter registration forms.

After the last speaker finished, protesters danced in the streets as others left downtown.