COVINGTON, Ga. — A demonstration in response to the Black community's treatment by police nationwide and other issues drew a few hundred participants to the Covington Square Friday and proved to be the third in a series of incident-free protests in recent weeks.
However, it was the first to feature participants walking along downtown streets and brought a heavy police presence to protect both marchers and speakers on the square, officials said.
Local activist Timothy Birt organized the two-and-a-half-hour event, which combined a protest and speeches with a celebration of the annual Juneteenth observance by African-Americans.
He was among about nearly 200 Black and white attendees who walked along Brown, Clark, Church and Ivy streets chanting slogans like "Black Lives Matter" before giving prepared speeches and talking about their experiences with other races and law enforcement at the Covington Square.
Birt, a Newton County resident, said he and other organizers paid for food, bottled water and snacks which were free to attendees. He called the event "amazing."
"I would have rather had more people come out and speak, but a lot of people aren't ready for that so it's understandable," Birt said. "We definitely want more people to come out so that elected officials, when they come out to these events, they hear the people."
In late May, after a Minneapolis police officer was accused of murder in the death of George Floyd — an unarmed Black man — it led to demonstrations, violent confrontations and widespread property damage.
In Atlanta, a peaceful protest earlier this month preceded a night of vandalism and property damage throughout the city.
However, Covington Police spokesman Capt. Ken Malcom said the Friday night event in Covington "was how you hope demonstrations should be."
"They're emotional, but the ones we've been dealing with have been very positive," he said.
He noted a prayer vigil and two similar demonstrations in recent weeks also were peaceful.
Sheriff Ezell Brown, who spoke throughout the event with attendees, said he knew it would be a positive and incident-free event after talking to organizers — including a group which had created past Juneteenth celebrations.
"I didn't see any problems," Brown said. "Juneteenth has been a day of celebration, and I thought we had a peaceful march from the church to the square and there and back."
Speakers touched on a variety of issues tied to race relations, including requests for continued support from white residents for changes in policing in the Black community; and the need for Black people to become involved in their government to bring about needed change.
Birt said he wanted attendees to see the event "not as a protest but a celebration."
Gregory Brown said events in 2020, such as the death of Ahmaud Arbery in southeast Georgia, brought members of different races together and "allowed us to hear each other" on the need for changing how the Black community is treated by law enforcement.
"When we collectively talk, leaders listen to us," he said.
He also spoke of the need for people of different races to communicate to clear up misconceptions about those with whom they are unfamiliar and "attack a system that allows people to be racist."
"There's no way we can change the system without changing our hearts," he said.
Gregory Brown also encouraged young Black people to work to educate themselves, own businesses and buy land to increase their political clout.
Tyler Still asked the crowd to contact members of the Newton County Board of Commissioners to ask them to remove a controversial Confederate statue from the northwest side of the Covington Square.
State law now requires local officials to move any historical monuments, including those dedicated to Confederates in the Civil War, to "a site of similar prominence" rather than a museum.
Gwen Green, a Newton County Historical Society member, referred to signs at the front of the crowd explaining the history of the Juneteenth celebration.
Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19 because Black slaves in Texas learned on June 19, 1865, they were the last slaves in the U.S. to be freed after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation order became effective more than two years earlier.
An annual Juneteenth celebration has been organized for many years in Newton County.