By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON — It started with Lennon Philo. Motorists driving through Brandon on Sunday morning may have seen the 21-year-old standing in front of the Brandon Congregational Church with a handwritten sign that read: “White silence is Violence,
“I wanted to preach how I was feeling,” Philo said.
Protests and riots have erupted all over the country in the days since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck as he lay prone, his hands in handcuffed behind his back. An autopsy showed Floyd died of asphyxiation. Chauvin has been charged with murder.
In Brandon on Sunday, resident Christy Gahagan drove by and saw Philo. She had gone to the Silver Lake trailhead but the parking lot was full, so she came back to town. She stopped upon seeing Philo protesting and joined him.
A little while later, Brandon Inn co-owner Sarah Pattis came out and joined the protest as well. Josh Collier saw the small group on his way to a meeting. When he came back through town, he stopped at Walgreens but the group was gone.
“I called Lennon and said that I’d wished I’d known and let’s do it tonight,’” Collier said. “I heard from a lot of people that we weren’t the only ones feeling this way.”
Philo said he understood.
“They were feeling that they couldn’t do it because they didn’t have support,” he said. “It’s pretty scary to do on your own because we do have conflicting opinions in our community.”
At 7 p.m. that night, up to 100 protesters moved in and out of Central Park with handmade signs protesting Floyd’s death. Allie Walter of Brandon joined the protest as well.
“I hope it gets people to realize how terrible things are,” she said.
Collier said he has been on the phone all day every day with his friends of color and his white friends as well.
“I’ve been telling my white friends that we need to live in the uncomfortability of this,” he said. “To watch and hear this pain that is so visceral and the fear that is all encompassing. To know these people I love are afraid for their lives everyday. They’ve been trying to wake us up for a long time. Now, we have to convince other white people.”
Collier said one woman approached them near the end of the protest and thanked them.
“She had three sons of color,” he said. “She said it was important and she was so happy to see it in her little town.”
The group plans a vigil on Friday, June 5 at 4:30 p.m. in Central Park. The names of black victims of injustice will be written on signs and read aloud.
“Everyone needs to be reached differently,” Philo said. “And we felt this was the most powerful way to do this.”
And there are plenty of names, Collier said.
“The fact that there are so many names to say is overwhelming,” he said. “Any person that shows up will be able to have a name. There are that many names.”
“And these are just the ones we know about,” Philo added.
He reiterated Collier’s remark about being uncomfortable. The death of George Floyd propelled Philo to a new level of engagement, he said.
“While I think of myself as someone who is against racism, I’ve never publicly spoken about it,” he said. “It’s time to step outside our comfort zones because we’ll never know the absolute stress a person of color feels everyday. If we could feel 1 percent of that uncomfortability, it puts into perspective how they feel everyday.”