They came to the Huntsville city council to ask questions and levy criticism after police twice last week released tear gas to break up protests over the death of George Floyd.
More than three dozen people spoke, some firing harsh words at Huntsville police Chief Mark McMurray and Mayor Tommy Battle and others wanting to know why the protests were halted in a militaristic manner.
The council listened, but did not respond to specific questions. Outside the window, hundreds of protesters marched to the Madison County Courthouse a block away and circled several times at the site where those first blasts of tear gas were released and past a Confederate monument the county commission and city council are now seeking permission to remove.
Inside council chambers, emotions ranged from shame over living in the Rocket City to anger at the police reaction to a desire for better relations going forward.
Xavier Sanders, 18, was the second speaker and, during his time at the podium, turned to a uniformed police officer in the audience and said, “Officer, I’m scared of you. I’m terrified of you. I have never felt safe with you. I’m afraid of catching you on a bad day.”
The first speaker, Maurice Shingleton Jr., repeatedly asked the council what was done to warn the people at the protests of any dangers.
“Respect us, as we respect you,” Shingleton said of police.
Several speakers also objected to explanations from Huntsville police and the Madison County sheriff’s department that outside agitators were largely to blame for the tear gas and rubber bullets that were deployed to end rallies last week.
“The only people who were not from here were state troopers,” said Dustin Timbrook, referring to a heavy presence of state police at the June 3 protest.
The conversation will continue, council President Devyn Keith told the capacity crowd, at a meeting on June 18 at 5 p.m. when police Chief McMurray will make a presentation to the council about the events of last week – both the police actions at the end of the protests as well as what led up to those events and what followed.
Only a handful of the speakers called the police chief by name, including Monica Joyce of the suburb of Harvest.
“Chief McMurray described protesters as a splinter group,” Joyce said. “This is a lie. He said they broke out their first aid kits, their water, their milk, their preparations for combat. If Band-Aids and milk are weapons of combat, I challenge Chief McMurray and Sheriff turner to demilitarize their forces and arm them with first aid kits, water and milk.”
Speakers also addressed the Confederate monument outside the Madison County Courthouse, some calling on Battle to take steps to have it removed himself.
Paul Drude said he believed the best place to put the monument was in the Huntsville city sewer, “so we’re all urinating on it.” Keith, presiding over the meeting, ended Drudge’s speaking time because of the nature of his comments.
Huntsville youth minister Dexter Strong, who spoke at the protests last week, said that he has been pulled over twice by Huntsville police while riding in the car with Keith, his council member.
“If we can’t escape getting pulled over, who can?” Strong asked.
Tension arose early in the evening at the protest outside city hall when two white men arrived and began arguing with other protesters. One of the men was Owen Marshall Eason, who was arrested at a protest last week for bringing a gun.
Afu Okosun, a local counselor, confronted the man and told him it was inappropriate to bring a gun to a protest.
“I get killed for that, I get pulled over for that,” he said, standing on a cement retaining wall as the crowd applauded. “I have to bring my daughter downtown to the park so that I can be humanized by these same individuals. Don’t do that, bro. This is my same city just as much as it is yours.”
Police presence was minimal, with just a few officers standing near the front of City Hall and a few patrol cars driving around the square. The barricades and lines of officers from last week’s protests were absent. The marching crowd avoided gathering at the Confederate monument.
Shauntia Ward, 19, led hundreds of marchers around the Courthouse Square, shouting names of black people who were killed by police.
“I want everybody to know we’re not bad people,” said Ward, who graduated from Buckhorn High School last year and plans to attend Tennessee State University in the fall. “We’re not trying to hurt anybody, we’re not trying to wreck businesses. We just want them to listen. We don’t want to lose another black man to police brutality.”