Clothed in all black, more than 1,000 members of the Central Florida community marched through the streets of downtown Orlando for a "Black Lives Matter rally" Sunday night.
The peaceful protesters brandished homemade signs as they chanted in unison, “Whose lives matter? Black lives matter,” “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “No justice! No peace!”
“I want to see everybody win,” said Orlando resident Ashanta Davis, who organized the four-hour rally. “That’s coming from my heart.”
Contention surrounding police killings of black citizens reignited last week after two black men were fatally shot by law enforcement officials. Davis said she was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Floridians who came to protest the deaths of Alton Sterling, 37, who was killed by police outside of a Louisiana convenience store, and Philando Castile, 32, who was killed by an officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota.
The Orlando demonstration began at the Walt Disney Amphitheater in Lake Eola Park. Florida residents and community leaders took to the stage to recite prayers, offer heartfelt words of encouragement, perform spoken-word poetry pieces and emphasize the peaceful nature of the protest.
“If you came to start some violence, just turn around and go home,” said Johnnie Tunstall Jr., who helped organize the rally.
Rasha Mubarak, a UCF alumna and the Orlando regional coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, denounced the outbreak of violence in Dallas, where a heavily armed sniper gunned down 12 police officers — five of whom died — at a Black Lives Matter rally on July 7.
“I don’t think anybody here praised anyone’s death,” Mubarak said. “I think our hearts broke more. Am I right? Are they wrong when they try to say that the Black Lives Matter movement stood for that? We stand for all lives.”
Unlike other nationwide protests, no violence or arrests were reported during the Orlando march. The crowd made their way down Rosalind Avenue and through the downtown area, stopping at the Orlando Police Department and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
Passersby cheered. Drivers honked their horns in solidarity. Residents stood on their balconies to wave to the protesters.
To ensure the safety of those participating in the rally, Orlando police officers blocked off portions of Rosalind, Orange and Hughey avenues.
Rally participants and law enforcement officials shook hands, exchanged high fives and had conversations with one another.
Throngs of protesters offered cold bottles of water to police officers. Some participants began to chant, “F*** the police!” They were met with disdain from other protesters, a majority of whom immediately yelled at them and began to shout “Unity” and “Blue Lives Matter.”
Orlando Chief of Police John Mina said he walked alongside the protesters to not only ensure their safety and the safety of his officers but “to help build some bridges.”
“We’re taking this opportunity to interact with the members who are here,” Mina said. “I had no doubt that the community of Orlando would have a peaceful protest, and I’m glad to see that they got this many people to come out. I think it’s important, and we’re happy to support them.”
A final prayer was said at the Walt Disney Amphitheater in Lake Eola Park to signify the end of the march. Rally organizers asked Central Floridians to never let the vibe of unity leave their hearts or their minds. They said the Black Lives Matter rally was a testament to the fact that “we are never alone” in the face of adversity.
“This is really beautiful to see all my brothers and sisters out here,” said Full Sail University student Kiata Green. “Black, white, yellow, green — it don’t really matter. We’re all brother and sisters on this Earth … We all kings and queens in the eyes of God, and we all should be kings and queens in the eyes of each other. And, as such, we have to have respect for each other.”
Shana Medel is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Email her at ShanaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.
Originally published July 11, 2016.