A protest of two turned into a protest of many Friday afternoon in downtown Rochester as more than 100 people gathered to demonstrate against police brutality and injustice in the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd.
“I can’t breathe,” Rochester resident LeVenius Hodges yelled. Hodges and Eugene Washington yelled those words outside the doors of the Olmsted County Adult Detention Center around 1 p.m. Friday. Wearing blue face masks with ”Mama!! I can’t breathe!!” written on them, the men took turns yelling out George Floyd's last words.
The pair said they had been in the Twin Cities on Thursday night taking part in protests there.
“I'm a black male. If I put myself in Floyd's shoes – somebody could call the police on me. I could be Floyd,” Hodges said. “We just want justice. We just want to not live in fear of the police. They are supposed to be public servants who are supposed to protect us. I don't feel protected by them.”
While protesting in the metro area, Hodges said he saw people coming together.
“Black, white, it doesn't matter your nationality, you was there,” he said. “We all came together for one cause – to get justice, to stop police brutality. That is what is important to us. We want justice. We're tired of cops getting off with this. Somebody got to be held accountable. You can't keep killing people and getting away with it. So that's our fight.”
By 3 p.m. Friday a crowd had started to gather at Soldiers Field Park with the intent of peacefully protesting and marching to the City-County Government Center. Just as Hodges saw in the Cities, the crowd that gathered in Rochester was a mix of ages, races and genders.
“We noticed there wasn’t a whole lot going on for Rochester itself, and we wanted to do something peaceful rather than join anything up in the Cities. We wanted to do something in our own community for those who couldn't make it up to the Cities,” event co-organizer Ashley Olson said. “It’s important that Rochester is on the map. That we show everyone we care. Silence is just as bad as doing nothing.”
For Rochester resident Mahad Hagi Friday's protest was about justice.
“What has been happening is wrong, and it’s not the police’s job to do what he did. He is supposed to serve and protect the community, and I feel like he overstepped his boundaries and that badge and what it stands for,” Hagi said. “When somebody is pleading for their life like that, before you put your badge into action, you are supposed to be a human being.”
Jahnai Jackson said she saw reflections of her own life in Floyd’s story. Jackson said her family moved from Illinois to Rochester for the hope of a better life. Floyd had moved from Houston to Minneapolis for a better life.
“It’s just crazy seeing how even though you run away from danger, it can still come up to you when you do absolutely nothing wrong,” Jackson said.
Carrying her 9-month son, Damien Samsundar, in her arms, De’Monica Hodges-Samsundar marched down Fourth Street Southeast not far from her father, LeVenius Hodges. Hodges-Samsundar said she had to be out Friday after not knowing what was going on with her father while he protested in the Cities.
“That scared me because that man who died, those men in general who died, could have been my father,” she said. “I couldn't handle that, so I have to be out here and fight because also my son is a black man. If anything happens to him, I don’t know what I would do. So I’m out here fighting for what is right.”
Taking part in Friday’s protest was the first time Hodges-Samsundar had taken action.
“This is something that I have to be a part of just because I am black myself,” she said. “Why now? Because I am old enough to know what is right and what is wrong, and it's been going on for too long for me not to do anything.”
Protesters returned to the City-County Government Center Friday evening after the protest march concluded. Standing near the windows at the Law Enforcement Center doors, the group directed their words to the Olmsted County Sheriff’s deputies inside the building.
Around 6 p.m., Rochester Mayor Kim Norton came to speak to the crowd. She said she had been watching online and been staying at home because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic but decided it was time to come out.
“I am very sorry,” she said. “I know we are all feeling a collective pain after what happened in the Twin Cities this week.”
Norton told the crowd that she works closely with Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin and told them he is committed to working with Rochester’s communities of color.
“We are trying to do all we can to build relationships with communities of color. We never want this to happen in this community of Rochester,” Norton said. “We want every single person to feel safe, to know they can trust if they come in contact with the police department.”
Norton told the crowd she was working to sure an incident like the one in Minneapolis never happens in Rochester.
“We have to work together to solve the systemic racism that is throughout our whole country,” she said. “I’m here to stand in solidarity with you. To tell you, you have my commitment as mayor to do everything we can to help make sure nothing like this happens.”