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Hundreds march, chant in peaceful protest downtown

Hundreds of people of all ages listened to speakers call for justice for black Americans, chanted the names of black people who have died in police custody, held signs calling for civil rights and marched four blocks along Main Street from City Hall to the Historic Courthouse in a peaceful protest on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Following demonstrations in U.S. cities from coast to coast after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the Hendersonville protest was marked by passion and enthusiasm and no violence. Police Chief Herbert Blake, who along with city officials and other law enforcement agencies had put in place a security and response plan, said at the start and toward the end of the event, "So far so good." He said officers had estimated the crowd size at 250-300.

Congregating at noon, the crowd heard nearly 20 different speakers from 12:30 to about 1:45 before marching up Fifth Avenue East and then along the Main Street to the Historic Courthouse. On the Courthouse plaza, Kelton Mills climbed atop a concrete pillar and led a series of call-and-response chants: "No Justice, No Peace." "Hands up. Don't shoot." "Say his name. George Floyd." "Say her name. Brionna Taylor." "What'd he say? I can't breathe."

Organized by a group of Hendersonville High School graduates who are now in college, the "Unite for Peace" rally attracted people of all colors, who listened to speakers ranging from elementary age children to a woman, 70, who told of growing up without knowing black people and later adopting a black child who calls her "Mom."

A 2017 graduate of HHS, Shiauna Ledbetter, one of the organizers, is a rising senior at UNC at Chapel Hill majoring in Global Health. The protest was moved from the Historic Courthouse to City Hall after threats appeared on social media.

"I've been working with closely with Chief Blake throughout this," she said. "He said that it would probably be safer and I felt like our safety was compromised once we started getting death threats. I've seen a lot of comments on Facebook that they're going to come and make sure we keep the peace. Me and my friends are as peaceful as it gets. I feel safe being backed by the Henderson County police department in this setting. I want our voices to be heard and I felt like we couldn't do that at the courthouse."

"Today is a peaceful protest," Ledbetter told the crowd that packed the City Hall parking lot. "For some reason, however, people assume women of color, especially black women, are being angry and belligerent when they are simply passionate or speaking out of frustration. Do not confuse my passion with rage. ... We are simply asking for justice and equality. We are asking that our skin color is not considered a crime."

Mayor Barbara Volk and council members issued a statement this week condemning George Floyd's death and offering support for police reforms.

"Hopefully (the turnout) shows that the community as a whole supports changes in societty and reminds us that we need to be aware of what's going on and what we should be doing better," she said.

Along with Ledbetter, Kaeleah Avery and Jasmine Mills organized the protest.

Avery recalled growing up hearing stories of her father "being chased by men with baseball bats as a kid solely because he had the audacity to be black in America."

"The ever-climbing number of lives lost to police brutality fuel my passion for this movement," she said. "Generations and generations before me have been fighting this same battle and it's time we come together as a community and the country and end the war."

Eric Gash, a father of three, business owner, school principal and minister, urged young people to vote, run for office and speak out. He praised Blake and the city police and sheriff's deputies.

"We know that not all white people are racist. We know that not all police are bad," he said. "My wife asked me this question the other day: Why is this different? And I feel in my heart of hearts it's different because the entire nation watched as a black man, as his life was snuffed out, slowly, methodically, maliciously. I cried as I watched that video. But it's happened hundreds, maybe thousands of times before. Why was this time different? It cut into my soul. My heart was torn in two. And I realized that something had to be done."

People called him and asked what could they do? "It's not enough just to vote," he said. "We need some of the young people to run."

"I'm wearing a shirt that says, 'See me.' See me as I see me," he said. "When you look at me what do you see? As a society, our white brothers and sisters, you have to see us for who we are. Just like you, we're part of the same race, and that's the human race."

"The police are not on trial here," he said. "White people are not on trial here but sin is on trial in the court of public opinion. And there's only one way to overcome sin, that's the blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. ... Blue birds and red birds don't fly together — that's nonsense."