METHUEN — A scorching summer solstice did not deter the more than 200 people who marched from Methuen High School to the city hall demanding racial justice on Saturday.
The peaceful protesters were brought together by the Merrimack Valley Social Justice Group, dressed mainly in black to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and chanted “No justice, no peace,” “I can’t breath,” “Hands up, don’t shoot” and the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who were recently killed by police in other cities.
The Methuen protest was one of many nationwide protests held Saturday, but the group posed specific local demands.
Protest organizers’ speeches and a flyer that was passed out listed the group’s demands: Reallocating funds from the Methuen Police Department to the recreation department and public schools, that the Methuen Public School system diversifies its texts to include more world cultures, and that a civilian advisory committee be created to address local issues.
“We are here today to bring light to major social issues,” organizer Jorge Martinez said. “It’s no mystery that people of color all over this country have been oppressed, attacked and vilified. Racism, although less pronounced as it is in other parts of the country, is still well and alive in our neck of the woods.”
Martinez compared the Methuen march, where there was a small presence of uniformed police officers mostly blocking roads to accommodate protesters to protests in Lawrence that occurred two weeks ago.
“In Lawrence, the organizers and protesters were met with excessive police presence and stores being boarded up,” Martinez said. “While in Methuen, we were met with the support of our city officials. The implicit bias for the same movement in two separate cities shows why this is relevant and why we are here today.”
The march through neighborhoods drew people from their homes like Donald Blount, who heard their chants from working in his garage. He didn’t know the protest was happening but was happy to see them pass by.
“I love this,” Blount, who is Black, said. “This is just the beginning.”
He smiled watching the protesters and exchanged kind words with neighbors passing by who also were supportive of the protest.
“It’s a complicated thing because there are good cops out there and bad cops,” he said.
Jen Percival brought her 2-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to a street corner by their house to observe the protest. It was an important teachable moment for her as a white parent and she hopes to see changes in their lifetimes, she said.
“I think it’s so important for them to know it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is,” she said. “Everyone deserves justice, freedom and representation.”
Speakers at the protest, like City Councilor Eunice Zeigler, reminded people that it’s important to show up not only to protest but to vote and hold local officials accountable, even if it’s talking to them when you see them in the grocery store, she said.
Zeigler also wanted to remind everyone that Black Lives Matter “is not something we say to make people feel uncomfortable.” Instead, it’s important for everyone to recognize their own internal biases, she said.
Mayor Neil Perry also attended the protest.
“Today is the beginning of a dialogue in Methuen,” Perry said when he got up to speak. “This rally isn’t the end of this process. I hear your request for a more active role in the governance of our city and I look forward to having that conversation.”
One of those first steps will be a community forum held at Timony Grammar School from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, he said.
One of the protesters’ demands of reallocating funds from the police department is something the City Council will talk about. The past two years the departments’ budget has decreased, he said. And this year the city is in a more difficult position with an expected $7 million revenue shortfall, he said.
Perry also wanted to thank protesters for wearing their masks and said free COVID-19 tests will be administered this week at AFC Urgent Care Methuen.