MILTON — The name “George Floyd” and the phrase “I can’t breathe” rang out across downtown Milton Sunday afternoon as more than 100 people gathered for a protest to draw attention to racial inequality, in light of the recent death of Floyd while in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer.
Derek Chauvin was fired by the Minneapolis Police Department this past week and charged with Floyd’s murder. A rash of protests have broken out across the country over the last several days, with many taking violent turns.
Sunday’s protest in Milton was peaceful, as the group first met in the Milton municipal parking lot and then moved nearby, to the area in front of the Milton Police Department.
Frank Manzano, of Milton, worked with several friends to organize Sunday’s protest. He was thankful to see so many community members turn out.
“You can see all the different nationalities and skin colors,” Manzano said. “They’re coming out to make a change. I’m proud of every single person that came out… The people that weren’t here are against us.”
Both he and Eric Wilt, who was also involved in organizing the event, said it was important that the protest be a peaceful one.
“I am about peace,” Manzano said. “I want this to be resolved peacefully.”
In planning the protest, Wilt said he stressed the importance of it taking place peacefully.
“I said ‘if you want to really make a change in a movement, you have to have a peaceful protest,’” Wilt said.
Shortly after moving to the area in front of the Milton Police Department, Officer Laura Messa found herself among the the group. Manzano said it was a meaningful moment when Messa knelt on the ground in unison with the protestors.
“She had the courage to take that knee,” Manzano said. “It meant the world.”
Two members of the Union County Sheriff’s Department also knelt with protestors.
Manzano criticized officers who refuse to stand in unison with peaceful protestors, noting that he believes it exemplifies a national divide.
Wilt said he has personally experienced inequality directed at African Americans in the judicial system.
While acknowledging that he made some mistakes, Wilt said he was stabbed by a fellow inmate while locked up after being involved in a robbery. He felt as if the correctional officers were against him.
“They did not like me,” he said. “They would tell the other inmates, who are white, to not give me my (meal) tray.”
Like Manzano, he said it meant a lot to see so many people from the community turn out for the protest.
“All lives matter,” Wilt said. “The whites are trying to come together too.”
He also noted that since being released from prison, he has been working to turn his life around.
“The first step was I got out of my gang,” Wilt said. “I got out of everything that was bad… I want to do everything legally.”
Matthew Nolder, of Milton, was among those in attendance at the protest. He said it’s important to educate the community about the concerns of minorities.
“Too many people who are non-minority leaders, they want to talk,” Nolder said. “Start listening to what we’re saying.
“If you’re not a minority, slow up and listen,” he continued. “We’ve always been set on a clash course.”
Nolder said the protests need to continue in order to educate society at large to the inequality faced by minorities.
“We need to be organized,” Nolder said. “We need to get more minorities in positions of power.”
Aisha Short, of Milton, said she was moved to see so many in attendance at the protest.
“It gives me chills to see this,” Short said. “I never thought this would happen… I hope a lot of people in the community who have a voice will make a change.”
She said it was important to participate in the protest because her “brothers and sisters are being killed.”
“I don’t have to come from the same mom as my brothers and sisters,” Short said.
Linda Meckley, a member of Milton Borough Council who attended the protest, offered a prayer at the conclusion of the event. Following the event, Meckley said it’s important to promote peace “in the name of Jesus.”
“Without him, there can be no peace,” Meckley said.
A number of emergency responders were on standby in the area of the event, including the Milton and Watsontown police departments, Pennsylvania State Police and the Union County Sheriff’s Department. The Milton Fire Department was also on standby, and assisted with traffic control.
Milton Police Department Chief Curt Zettlemoyer said his department received word in advance that the protest would be taking place. He noted that the majority of the protest participants were from Milton.
Organizers of the protest said they plan to hold another one in the coming weekend in Mifflinburg.