The drumbeat reverberated across Discovery Green on Tuesday afternoon as thousands gathered in Downtown Houston in honor of George Floyd, the Houston native whose death after an officer kneeled on the prone Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis last week has since sparked protests across the nation and around the world.
While city officials expected about 20,000 to attend, despite concerns over the coronavirus, the park near the George R. Brown Convention Center was a sea of people, and more kept coming as the organizers of the event, Bun B and Trae Tha Truth started off the rally.
By the time Lakewood Church Pastor Joel Osteen was leading the gathering in an opening prayer, more than 60,000 Houstonians were surrounding the park. Then the mile-long march began as more than a dozen members of Floyd’s family helped lead the way down Walker Street toward Houston City Hall. Adrenaline coursed through the crowd as they walked past police officers clad in riot gear—although police only lined the roadways and did not interact with protestors.
It took longer than most expected to make that walk to City Hall due to the sheer size of the turnout, and with temperature highs above 90 degrees, the marchers, many of them masked to protect against COVID-19, were soaked with sweat. Clusters of well-wishers along the way offered free water and snacks to keep people hydrated, and the mood of crowd was giddy. Some rode down the street on horseback, while others held up signs. Many simply marched and chanted, “I can’t breathe,” Floyd's last words.
But once the march arrived in front of City Hall, people wearing masks flooded around the reflecting pool. Floyd's family members filed onto the stage, many of them holding signs. Bun B stepped up to the microphone, and the crowd grew hushed as he began to speak. “Look around you. Don’t let anybody tell you what Houston, Texas, is. This is Houston, Texas,” he said.
“Houston is unified. Houston stands together in solidarity, against police brutality, against racial injustice," Bun B said. "We are all children of God and that’s why we are standing here today, to honor a fellow brother of ours, George Floyd, who was tortured and murdered in the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota. We will never forget. We will never forget his name is memory.”
The crowd erupted in cheers, as he continued, reminding the audience, “You may be sweaty. Your legs may hurt, but you will never have to deal with the pain George Floyd had to deal with.”
Much of the following speeches were calls for unity, but when activist Tamika Mallory took the podium, her frustration boiled over. Mallory demanded police be held accountable for such crimes. “They keep asking me, ‘How do we calm the streets down?’ and I keep telling them to arrest and band the cops who had something to do with George’s death. Arrest the cops!” The audience responded to her outrage, chanting and waving their fists in the air. Although the crowd was soaking up her energy, Mallory eventually tempered her message, reminding people that they can make changes happen by banding as a community, registering to vote, and showing up to the polls.
Overall, the rally focused on finding constructive ways of ensuring that what happened to Floyd will never happen again. Messages of change and reform within the community were reinforced by many of the speakers, with both U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and US. Rep. Al Green vowing to introduce legislation to better protect people from being victims of police brutality. Bun B pleaded for a community review board with subpoena power for when “the police cannot police themselves.”
Seated in a wheelchair on the stage, Rev. Bill Lawson, the 93-year-old pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, who once marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., offered up a more tempered message. At first the crowd didn't seem responsive, but after being reminded of Lawson's long history in the Civil Rights Movement, they settled down. Lawson advised his listeners to have hope. “This is no longer just a black parade. This is a parade of all kinds, of races and cultures. You have been heard,” he said, speaking so softly people quieted to hear him.
“The next thing you have to do is not march, but register and vote," Lawson said. "We have to get out of office those people who feel they have to energize and make possible those who would suppress black folks. Keep mobilized. Don’t let this be a one-day movement.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner then took over, acknowledging that changes need to be made in Houston. “In our city, in the midst of so much prosperity, there are communities that have been underserved, under-resourced for decades,” he said. “We recognize there is a lot of work that needs to be made.”
Turner vowed to stand with the community and to continue marching alongside their efforts to fight for reforms. “I’m not here to tell you that we’re perfect,” he said. “I’m not here to tell you that we don’t make mistakes. But what is important, for people like myself in positions of authority and power, is we have to make sure that while we are here we work every single day to make a positive difference. And what is important is for the mayor of Houston to march, walk, protest, with you, not against you.”
Turner noted that Floyd’s family wanted to have a peaceful protest and would not provoke any damages or violence. “All that they ask, is that as we march, protest, demonstrate, that we do it in such a way that we do not deface his name,” he told the crowd. “They want us to be peaceful, and I ask that we do it this way in the City of Houston, because that is just who we are.”
As the speeches concluded, a woman onstage sang a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” her voice pulling shivers and goosebumps from audience members, even in the midst of a hot June day with the sun beating down from above.
Trae Tha Truth and Bun B led people back to Discovery Green. Floyd’s family and thousands of Houstonians walked with them, still chanting and the drumbeats still sounding. Members of Crips and Bloods gangs even bound their bandanas together in order to symbolize unity among usually opposing sides. Things got tense at Travis and Walker streets when a protestor interacting with one police officer quickly became about 100 officers lining up and facing a couple hundred marchers. But Trae Tha Truth and Floyd’s family interceded, breaking the tension and sending that clump of protestors on their way within minutes, something they continued to do as they moved through the city.
While a significant number of people lingered downtown, many did as the organizers and Turner asked and headed home after the protest was over. There were other fraught moments between the protestors and the police as the sun began to set. Upon arrival at Discovery Green, the remaining protestors swarmed the streets and blocked the buses from proceeding, climbing on top of the METRO vehicles, and holding up their signs. HPD officers started asking people to leave at around 6 p.m. But when the officers didn’t actually clear the area, people came back, the start of a pattern that went on for another three hours until officers and mounted police turned out around 9 p.m. to more forcefully encourage people to disburse.
Considering what has been going on other American cities, and the way the first Houston protest devolved last Friday, the Tuesday demonstration was something all Houstonians should be proud of, marcher Salem Keleti said.
“The importance of coming to this march is seeing how many people support the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. “It is important to be in solidarity with one another and to keep this peaceful. I think we successfully put on a successful march and I am very proud of my city for putting this on for George Floyd and his family.”