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Protesters march peacefully through Smithfield, Selma

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SMITHFIELD — More than 100 people on Sunday peacefully protested the death of George Floyd, a black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes.

Smithfield police officers and Johnston sheriff’s deputies provided security for the protesters, who chanted “no justice, no peace” as they marched from Smithfield to Selma.

“The way they’re doing it is outstanding,” Smithfield Police Chief Keith Powell said of the protesters, who were peaceful if sometimes profane during the march.

“I’m in total support of what they’re doing,” Powell said of the condemnation of police brutality against black men. “The cause that they’ve got, it’s a good thing.”

Among the protesters was Murielle Francois of Smithfield, who said she marched peacefully to call for peace. “Nothing violent, nothing crazy,” she said. “We just want peace and unity in our community. That’s why I’m here.”

Sunday’s protest in Smithfield was passionate but nonviolent, a stark contrast to what took place in other North Carolina cities the day before, Francois said. “I’m glad it’s not like what we saw in the other counties last night, because that gets us nowhere,” she said. “We want change, we want equality, we want unity, and that’s really what we want.”

Olivia Layton of Clayton said she came to Smithfield to march in solidarity with black people, who have long been victims of police brutality. “I may not be a color of person myself and may not understand what they go through, but I’m here to stand with you,” she told her fellow marchers.

Layton said she felt an obligation to march after watching protests in other cities. “Just seeing how escalated the protests have gotten, how terribly the cops have been treating the protesters in many of the states throughout our country, I just felt like it was my duty to come out and support my brothers and sisters,” she said.

As they walked along Market Street toward Bright Leaf Boulevard, police officers and protesters talked about police treatment of blacks.

“I think there needs to be some coming to the table, because what’s happening with our police officers in our country is horrible,” said Renee Adams of Smithfield. “Young black boys grow up terrified of the police. And it’s not every police officer.”

Adams said that when her son got a traffic ticket on May 24, her first thought was how much the citation was going to cost her, not how much the traffic stop could have cost her son.

“He came home and the first thing I said was, ‘Oh Lord, the insurance is going up,’ ” Adams recalled.

She didn’t think about how her son might be feeling. “I went back the next day after I saw the news and I said, ‘I’m so sorry, Chris. I did not ask you how you were doing emotionally,’ ” Adams said.

She was relieved when her son used a slang term for cool to describe the police officer. “He says, ‘Mom, that was the dopest cop, the second dopest cop I’ve ever seen. Like he was so nice,’ ” Adams said.

Adams, a therapist, said whites often misread blacks. “When black people talk and are angry, there’s a lot of passion in our voice,” she said. “We talk with every part of our body, and that’s very easily misconstrued that we’re angry and aggressive. No, that’s just how we are. That stereotype about these angry black men who are out to kill is problematic.”

Smithfield Mayor Andy Moore condemned what happened in Minneapolis and praised the Smithfield protesters for peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights. “It’s very unfortunate ... what happened to George Floyd,” he said. “It simply isn’t right, and the people’s right to come together peacefully and assemble and to protest, that’s how it should be. The things that have happened over the last couple of nights in Raleigh and Fayetteville, I certainly hope that doesn’t happen here.”

Moore was quick to condemn the violence and looting that left many businesses reeling. “I understand the frustration and the amount of anger and everything that’s built up in people, but going out and destroying others’ property is just not the way to do it,” he said. “Hopefully, people will speak their minds and be heard, and hopefully on the flip side, people will listen, and hopefully there will be change.”