By Clay Coleman
MEXICO—I have never written a traditional column for any newspaper.
During my time at The Vandalia Leader, I have crafted screenplays and short stories. I have written about basketball games, council meetings, and have cut and pasted my way through numerous road closures and storm warning updates. Still, I’ve never had the opportunity to write a column, so let me start this off by saying that what happened to George Floyd on Memorial Day, was a national disgrace.
On May 25, Floyd, a truck driver and part-time bouncer from Minneapolis, Minn., was killed when four police officers arrested him for passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a local grocery store.
During their attempts to place Floyd, who was handcuffed and complaining he couldn’t breathe, into the back of a police car, officer Derek Chauvin, a 19-year veteran with 18 official complaints on his record and who had worked with Floyd in his off-time as a bouncer, pulled Floyd face down into the street and with the help of fellow officers J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, killing him.
The official autopsy report states Floyd’s death was a homicide by “cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained,” and the four officers have since been arrested on second-degree murder charges and aiding and abetting second-degree murder. All four were fired from the Minneapolis police force the day after Floyd’s death.
But that wasn’t enough for Mexico resident Charlene Lovelace. Tired of the tragic deaths of black Americans at the hands of police, and enraged by the shooting death of Breonna Taylor—a black woman who was killed when police mistakenly entered her home attempting to issue a “no-knock” warrant in Kentucky two months prior—Lovelace set out to do something about it.
Lovelace’s life had always somehow revolved around racism and violence. Her parents, divorced when she was young, separating her from her family—physically and emotionally. Although one side of the family was open to new ideas and encouraged interaction with people of all races, some family members on the other side were avowed racists, believing in white superiority and the separation of blacks and whites.
And the reality of the violence between the police and the black community hit home for Lovelace when she was in high school. Her best friend’s younger brother was shot in the head by police during a spate of gang violence in Columbia. He’s now in a permanent vegetative state and living in an assisted living home. For this, Lovelace vowed that one day, if she could, she would try and do something about it.
A few days after the tragic death of Floyd, and the subsequent protests and riots that were taking place across the country, Lovelace contacted a close friend, and together they decided to organize a peaceful protest at Lakeview Park in Mexico. They created an event on Facebook, posted it to a popular site in the community, and sat back and waited for the responses. Although the majority of responses were supportive—and some people even committed to going—Lovelace also received death threats. They accused her of bringing in rioters. She also lost close friends in the process, including relatives.
On the day of the protest, a vigil for Floyd was taking place in the town square. Lovelace was worried if anyone would show up to her event, but she was determined that she and her daughter would be there, holding up the signs they hurriedly made a few hours before. Lovelace had asked her children if anyone wanted to go with her, and her oldest daughter raised her hand. Lovelace was proud of her. She and her husband raised their five children to have open minds, and never judge someone by their skin color.
Turning off the ignition to her truck, Lovelace reached into the backseat and grabbed the freshly painted signs from hours before. Stepping out into the heat and the humidity, she could feel the stickiness in the air as she looked up and noticed the clouds were giving her a short respite before the rain arrived. Taking her daughter’s hand, she walks past a preacher wearing a surgical mask. He’s holding a sign that says he’s willing to pray with anyone, regardless of which side of the issue they are on. As she walked to the group of 50 people standing in small groups, some holding signs, others looking excitedly in her direction, she hoped it was theirs.
Lovelace then helps organize the scattered bodies into one large group, and walking past a lake in the center of the park, where a boy and his father are casting fishing lines expecting to catch something, the group follows a row of trees, and exit near the street. Lining up shoulder to shoulder, they wave signs at cars chanting, “I can’t breathe” and “Say his name,” which the group responds with “George!” in unison. Lovelace is especially proud of her sign. Her children helped paint it. They were supposed have them done before she got home from work, but she doesn’t blame them. They shouldn’t have to be dealing with this—the violence, the senseless loss of life—any of it!
After an hour of the group waving signs and laying on the ground in protest of Floyd being handcuffed and placed on his stomach, the preacher—still wearing his mask—organizes the group into a semi-circle, and they bow their heads in prayer. Lovelace notices Audrain County Sheriff Matt Oller on his knees; head bowed in prayer. She watched him when he walked up to the group as they were waving at cars—wearing his usual black polo shirt and khaki pants. He kept a low profile and stayed in the back, and Lovelace was grateful for it. Everything had turned out better than expected, she thought to herself. There was no violence, no looting, and no one got hurt.
After the preacher finished his prayer, and the protesters shared personal instances of racism and police violence, the sky opens up, and a cold, hard rain falls on the group. Lovelace watches as the protesters grab their signs, and placing them over their heads, start running towards their cars. Grabbing her daughter’s hand, Lovelace hangs back from the group and asks her how she felt about today. Did she gain anything by being out there with her? And when her daughter dropped her sign and hugged her, Lovelace knew she had gained—everything.