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Shouting ‘I can’t breathe,’ more than 1,000 protesters march through Annapolis to demand Black equality, urge voting

With shouts of “I can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter,” more than 1,000 people marched through downtown Annapolis Saturday morning to protest police violence and racism.

Pastors prayed for officials to correct injustices while activists implored participants to register to vote in what they described as a consequential election. At the same time, leaders demanded that Black men step up to be the leaders the youths in their community need.

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Starting at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, then proceeding down Rowe Boulevard to City Dock, the protest was organized by members of the Anne Arundel clergy and local civil rights activists in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who was Black, in the custody of white Minneapolis officers.

At one point, the peloton of protesters spanned the length of the the bridge over College Creek on Rowe Boulevard.

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And as the group began its final stretch, Carl Snowden, convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders, said Floyd, killed by a Minneapolis police officer who used a chokehold to subdue him, wasn’t the first to say “I can’t breathe.”

“The first time Black people said they couldn’t breathe, it was on slave ships coming to Annapolis,” he said. “Today, we speak for them.”

The protest paused at several points along the way, and members of the clergy prayed for Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and the County Council, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley and the City Council as well as the Bowie Mayor Tim Adams.

Clergymen asked for God to “arrest the hearts” of lawmakers and judicial officials. They prayed that if politicians don’t hear protesters' message from God, they will hear the voices of those chanting in the streets.

“Justice and fairness is what we want to live in peace and tranquility. And the Bible asks us to pray for those in authority,” Bishop Antonio Palmer, pastor of the Kingdom Celebration Center in Severn and an organizer of the event, said Thursday.

“Our belief is what gives us the drive to help. And no matter what the opposition may be that we face, we have the (energy) that motivates us to seek change... because it’s the African Americans who are being ostracized and oppressed, that’s who we’re focused on helping.”

Pittman, Buckley and Adams, the first Black mayor of Bowie, were among public officials in the crowd. When the marchers reached Susan Campbell Park at City Dock, they were among the first to address the crowd filling the waterfront plaza.

Buckley acknowledged the “consequential” past of slavery in Annapolis — the park is footsteps from the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial commemorating thousands of Africans brought to the city as enslaved people — and creating laws that blocked Black people from full citizenship after emancipation.

Pittman, meanwhile, rejected “racist” trickle-down economics, which he said voters won’t stand for in November. He thanked protesters “for leading us towards justice.”

Both elected officials took moments to remember the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday. A historical figure in the advancement of equal treatment of women, Pittman said she forced the country to realize “All Men Created Equal” was not good enough.

Among the coalition of groups that organized the march, the United Black Clergy played a key role.

Apostle Larry Lee Thomas, pastor of the Empowering Believers Church in Glen Burnie and chairman of the organization, asked those in the crowd why they came.

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“Did you come here because you were treated like your life didn’t matter?” he asked. “Or maybe because Black participants saw police lights in the rearview and feared a horrible outcome?”

Drake Smith, student member of the county Board of Education, described the perils of some Black youths.

“We are scared that if we get pulled over we might not make it home. Some of us are scared that if we play outside, we might catch a stray bullet.”

Many of the protests before in Anne Arundel County and nationwide have focused on calling for police reform. Protesters have demanded defunding law enforcement, changing police use force rules and how officers are held to account.

Organizers said the rally was intended to focus on more than police violence, but also education gaps and health disparities that have only been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s not enough for schools to denounce racism,” Thomas said. "They need policies to ensure all students are educated equally regardless of race.

“It is not enough that fair housing laws are on the books, we need county government to act so Black people can live wherever they want.”

But the protest was just the beginning, Thomas said, “everywhere you see injustice, look over your shoulder and we will be there.”

Added Harold Lloyd III, of Robinwood, “We’ll be packed in that City Hall, we’ll be packed in that General Assembly, like some new Jordan’s came out.”

The march was scheduled to align roughly with the 25th anniversary of the Million Man March on Oct. 16, when hundreds of thousands of people, maybe more, descend on the nation’s capital to promote Black unity and families. It was intended to instill in African American men a personal sense of responsibility for improving the condition of their communities.

Those same values were restated Saturday.

The Rev. Karen Johnson, pastor of the First Christian Community Church in Annapolis, said Black men need to teach boys about being a father and to protect their communities from senseless killings.

“Manhood and womanhood is all about integrity... and fighting with our intelligence, not our hands and fists.”

While wide-ranging in substance, the protest provided a message that’s perhaps never rung louder in Annapolis, Palmer said. According to his account, it was a success.

He believes their voices were heard.

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