Local organizers including Faith Harris, center, discuss the gameplan for a protest march in Savannah with veteran Georgia civil rights leader Francys Johnson, right.
Caption
Local organizers including Faith Harris, center, discuss the gameplan for a protest march in Savannah with veteran Georgia civil rights leader Francys Johnson, right.

UPDATE: Mayor Van Johnson implemented on Sunday a citywide curfew in effect from 8:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. nightly while necessary.

 

He said the city means to proactively prevent disorder or violence.

“We have experienced a great day of peaceful demonstrations, necessary dialogue, unity and solidarity,” Johnson said. “We want to continue to ensure the safety of our citizens, visitors and the protection of property. This is an uncomfortable, but necessary step in making that happen.”

Anyone out after the curfew should expect to be stopped and questioned.

ORIGINAL STORY: The city of Savannah will launch a new task force to study and address disparities in the city, Mayor Van Johnson told protesters on the steps of City Hall Sunday.

 

“This is a moment,” Johnson said. “What happens tomorrow is the movement.”

 

He said the new task force will, “examine by data every single disparity that exists in the city of Savannah, be it economic, be it health, be it social, be it police.”

 

“We know it exists,” Johnson said. “We’re going to quantify it. And in this administration, we’re gonna take action to make sure that it happens.”

 

The announcement came amid public outcry nationwide over racial injustice, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Demonstrations in several cities, including Atlanta, have turned violent.

 

Despite concerns beforehand that outsiders were organizing Savannah’s protest in order to incite violence, the event remained peaceful. Johnson announced in a news conference Saturday night that he and other city officials would attend, and he said violence would not be tolerated.

 

Before marching began, a core group of young local organizers discussed a gameplan with veteran civil rights leader Francys Johnson, former head of the state NAACP and current chairman of the New Georgia Project.

 

About 30 volunteers, mostly white, also met prior to the march to undergo de-escalation training aimed at diffusing tense situations and keeping protesters safe, especially protesters of color.

 

  “This particular practice is really focused on using white privilege as a tool,” said local activist Coco Papy. “It's a way for us to ensure that as people less likely to experience violence because of our whiteness, we can use that as a tool to keep people — specifically black people, who are most likely to experience the negatives of these moments — we keep people safe.”  

 

She acted out a brief demonstration of stepping in to help maintain calm and check on the welfare of a protester. Throughout the march and afterward, the group remained in contact in an effort to address any escalation they saw.

 

Protesters, meanwhile, packed Johnson Square, one of the city’s small historic parks and the closest to City Hall. They began by kneeling silently, fists raised, for eight minutes. That’s the length of time the Minneapolis officer knelt on Floyd’s neck, according to a criminal complaint.

 

Then the young organizers, flanked by Francys Johnson of the New Georgia Project, current Mayor Van Johnson, and former Mayor Otis Johnson, led the crowd of hundreds in a march one block to City Hall, where they addressed the crowd.

 

  “We’re dying. Black people are dying at the hands of the police,” said organizer Faith Harris as the crowd continued to chant. “We’re dying because the system allows us to die. We’re dying because the system doesn’t care what we go through, what we need. They don’t care about our lives.”

 

Local faith leaders addressed the Savannah crowd as well, as did Savannah Police Chief Roy Minter, who was greeted with shouts of “Chief! Chief!.”

 

“We who wear this uniform need to see you, hear you and most of all respect you, every day,” Minter said.

 

“You’re angry. You’re frustrated. I’m angry. I’m frustrated,” he went on. “There is not a day that I forget that I wear this uniform to work, but I live as an African-American male every day. And I realize the anger and the frustration in our community.”

 

Mayor Van Johnson made a similar point, describing a time in his youth when he was stopped by police and held with his face against the ground. He said he still does not know why the officers stopped him.

 

Much of Savannah’s city council turned out in solidarity with the protesters. Johnson carried a sign that read “Savannah Lives Matter,” and Alderman Detric Leggett assisted a young woman who became overwhelmed amid the crowd.

 

Volunteers stationed themselves around the edges of the protest to hand out water bottles as the temperature neared 90 degrees.

 

Police closed the streets around Johnson Square and blocked of Bay Street for a block to either side of city hall, and officers patrolled on foot and on horseback. 

 

Gov. Brian Kemp pledged Saturday to have “people on the ground down there” for the Savannah protest. State patrol cars were staged in the parking lot of the Savannah Civic Center, several blocks from the march. But though groups of protesters continued to march and chant through other areas of downtown, as of five p.m. the demonstrations had not broken out into violence.

 

Caption
Savannah organizers Faith Harris (left) and Nychorida Austin (with bullhorn) lead a protest march flanked by New Georgia Project chairman Francys Johnson, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson (right, in red) and former Mayor Otis Johnson (right, in blue)
Activist Coco Papy (center) explains how to step in to keep black protesters safe if someone tries to incite violence.
Caption
Activist Coco Papy (center) explains how to step in to keep black protesters safe if someone tries to incite violence.
Activist Faith Harris addresses a crowd of hundreds of protesters in Savannah, surrounded by (left to right) Francys Johnson of the New Georgia Project, former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, activist Nychorida Austin, Alderwoman Estella Shabazz, and current Savannah Mayor Van Johnson.
Caption
Activist Faith Harris addresses a crowd of hundreds of protesters in Savannah, surrounded by (left to right) Francys Johnson of the New Georgia Project, former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, activist Nychorida Austin, Alderwoman Estella Shabazz, and current Savannah Mayor Van Johnson.