Elected officials including Greenville Mayor P.J. Conley and Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance joined faith leaders on Saturday to call for peace and change in the face of violence ignited across the country by another police killing of a black man.
The Interfaith Clergy Standing for the Community gathered with Dance and Connelly at noon Saturday outside St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Greenville to address the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minn., police on Memorial Day. The news conference took place while activists gathered across town at Memorial Drive and Greenville Boulevard to protest the killing.
Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman and the Pitt County NAACP also released statements about the killing and violence.
Several speakers at St. Timothy also noted the deaths of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville, Ky., woman shot to death by police in her own bedroom, and Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia man who was jogging and shot by two men who thought he was as a burglary suspect.
No one should endure what George Floyd suffered when a police officer pressed his knee into his neck, Samar Badwan, chairwoman of Greenville’s Human Relations Council said at St. Tim's.
“We understand what the protesters are feeling, the anger, the anguish, the sadness, the depression," Badwan said about demonstrations in Minneapolis and cities across the country.
"We are here today to stand with you. We are here today to say we are asking our leadership, whether you are city, whether you are county, whether you are state, whether you are federal, that it is time to make changes in your agencies. It’s time for you to step up, it is time for you to review what is going on in your agencies, retrain the people within your agencies … it is time to stand up within agencies and say the violence isn’t what the agencies are for. They are here to protect and serve all in the community.”
“Over the last few months we’ve had several senseless deaths of African-Americans and it’s all because of that cancer called racism," said Pastor Charles Lewis of Antioch Church Ministries in Bell Arthur. "It goes into remission, but all it takes is one bad cell in the body to cause this cancer called racism to appear again. There’s only one cure … that we all come together and allow the love of Christ to come into our hearts and into our land.”
Lewis said Sunday is Pentecost, which marks the day the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples of Jesus Christ. The American people need to let God enter their hearts, he said.
“The world has continued to allow hatred to go around, over and over, again and again,” said Pastor Rodney Coles Sr., who helped organize Saturday’s event.
Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance, the first African-American woman elected sheriff in North Carolina, described Floyd’s death as a “public lynching.” She quoted Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy, who earlier this week said, “If you wear a badge and you don't have an issue with this, turn it in."
The systematic mistreatment of African-Americans goes beyond law enforcement, Dance said.
“The curtains must continue to be pulled back in our entire judicial system,” Dance said. “In our courtrooms, in our businesses, in our schools and into the very fabric of our nation. We must have that conversation and we cannot ever again close this curtain because Mr. George Floyd paid too high of a price to let them close again.”
Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly said he was “disgusted, saddened and angered” because despite “the progress we’ve made in human relations over the years there are still incidents such as this one with Mr. Floyd.”
Connelly said he wants communities to have meaningful conversations and express themselves through “peaceable assemblies.”
“Fortunately we live in a country where our Constitution protects our right to peaceful protest and to express our views. It’s critical for our democracy,” Connelly said.
As Greenville residents process what is happening in Minneapolis, Connelly asked “that we express our views and act in ways that will truly bring a positive change to our world.”
It is time for society to face its greatest enemy, which is fear, said Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman of Congregation Bayt Shalom.
“If we are a society that is going to give in to the excessive fears, that drive some police officers to overreact based on a young man’s race; that drives some protesters to go violent base on their own excessive anger and their own excessive fear, then we have a situation that will build on itself,” he said.
The Rev. John Porter-Acee, St. Timothy’s priest, said people have to not only begin celebrating the beauty, and seeing the face of God, in different individuals, they also have to stand up and intercede when wrong is taking place, especially if they suspect there is a racial motivation.
“The bullies aren’t going to stop bullying, the victims are not responsible for freeing themselves, it’s the bystanders and those who witness the crimes that must speak up and speak out. Speak with the heart that the Lord has put in you and the voice of love he has given you,” Porter-Acee said.
At one point during the 30-minute event, someone shouted from a passing vehicle. Porter-Acee said it sounded like an anti-Semitic remark while Connelly said it sounded like a criticism of Gov. Roy Cooper. Both men agreed an expletive was used.
Pentecost is about the breath, the spirit that gets under the wings and makes a difference in lives, retired Episcopal priest Bob Hudak said. People saw that George Floyd’s last words were “I can’t breath, I want my momma.”
“That’s where the energy is coming, that is where the spark is being ignited for us to take a stand, to recognize that we are all part of one human family,” Hudak said.
As people pray for George Floyd, his family and so many others, they also should pray that his death “is the spark to continue to open our eyes, open our hearts and get those feet moving to establish the relationships that can help us truly reflect the face of God in our humanity,” he said.
Interfaith Clergy will continue to share the message of peace, love and justice, Coles said. The Interfaith Clergy is planning a similar gathering in Robersonville next week.
“I want to encourage communities to pray and come together and work together,” he said. Any clergy who wants to learn more about the group’s work should reach out.
“I believe it’s about unity; unity is inside our community and whatever we can do here, we will share information and resources,” he said. “The key is bringing in information, education and also legislation. You can’t get the legislation unless you have education and you can’t get education without communication."
Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman did not attend Saturday's event but released a statement that said Floyd's death was a tragedy that could have been avoided.
Holtzman said he was disturbed by the video of Floyd's death, which depicted a lack of empathy and disregard for human life.
He said the officers in Minneapolis failed to uphold the oath officers take to protect the citizens in the community they serve and help those in need.
"The actions I observed by the officers in Minneapolis are not representative of officers as a whole. They do not match the training we’ve invested in or the measures we’ve taken to ensure accountability and transparency here at the Greenville Police Department," Holtzman said in the statement.
Many members of the law enforcement community will be fielding questions regarding public safety and police interactions in the coming days and months, he said. The incident in Minneapolis will have a lasting impact on the trust and respect community members have for officers.
"In times of difficulty, nothing brings a community together more than agreeing on a common issue. It’s our responsibility as officers and citizens to step up and do the right thing. We must respect life above everything else," Holtzman said.
The Coalition Against Racism, a Greenville-based group that has advocated for an independent police review board, has been holding demonstrations near the intersection of Greenville Boulevard and Memorial Drive.
A statement from the Pitt County Branch of the NAACP called for justice and swift consequences for those involved with Floyd's death.
“We are outraged by this act,” Pitt County NAACP Branch President Calvin Henderson said. “We need to increase our calls for justice. We need to stop the completely unwarranted killing of our brothers and sisters. We are done dying.”