In the early morning hours of June 2nd, dozens of citizens — mostly middle and high school students — equipped themselves with buckets of colorful chalk and turned the sidewalks along Churton and King streets into giant pieces of canvas. The participants drew pictures and wrote messages of peace, frustration and hope on the sidewalks in downtown Hillsborough.
By many accounts, the peaceful protest was a success, except that the organizers had hoped to have more people with signs.
“I first came to the chalk out, and I realized that only a few people had signs,” one of the organizers Elsa Lasandros said. “Later that same day, I went to a protest in Raleigh and saw how inspirational it was. Spiritually, it lifted me up. I saw the joy, I saw the hurt, I saw everything there. So I thought, let’s just do the same here. Let’s bring this to Hillsborough. We may be a small town, but we have the capability to do this.”
Three days later, the people of Hillsborough took to the streets in response to the recent murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. They held handmade signs in support of racial equality and shouted “No justice, no peace,” “Say his name, George Floyd,” “Black lives matter,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Orange High School students Elsa Lasandros, Brooke Currie, Colin O’Hagerty, and Chenoa Breeze organized a protest at noon, while an evening march was organized by UNC Charlotte student, Aiden Salmeron, and his friend, Colin Davis.
“There was a much bigger turnout this time than there was at the chalk protest,” Brooke said. “There were definitely more than double the amount of people, and we were a lot louder.”
For Aiden Salmeron, one of the organizers of the evening protest, he was inspired in a more spur-of-the-moment manner.
“I thought of the idea one morning when I woke up out of bed,” Salmeron said. “I figured that it was going to take a lot of work, so I collected the help of my friend Colin Davis. It was a spontaneous thought and also a recognition that I wasn’t really playing much of a part in the movement. I thought that because I wasn’t posting much on social media, and I wasn’t actively contacting Senators and government officials and playing my part, that I could contribute some other way.”
Both protests took significant time and energy to organize, and turnout was presumably largely attributed to social media publicity.
“It took a pretty lengthy, step-by-step process,” Salmeron added. “Coming from a background with not much activism, what my friend and I did was get in touch with certain lawyers and government officials and asked them their opinion. We were directed towards the Hillsborough Police Department, which was our first concrete step of the process. We actually had no idea that we were going to be able to walk through downtown Hillsborough. We initially felt that that would have been too hard. They let us walk through downtown Hillsborough and blockaded the streets for us. That was really kind of them. Once we got the logistics of the legality solidified, we went door-to-door, posted on Facebook, and contacted as many Black Lives Matter organizations as we could. What I think got a lot of people to come out was our social media posts on Instagram and Facebook, which were shared by many people. I think they got the majority of attention.”
Given the present pandemic, the organizers of the protests wanted to be cautious, highly recommending that attendees wear masks.
“We put in the social media posts that we highly encourage everyone to bring masks,” Salmeron explained. “We made sure that everybody showed up with proper protection. We really wanted to make sure that despite everything going on with the Black Lives Matter movement, we didn’t lose the foothold of the other really big concern amongst all of our lives that is COVID.”
“Also, we wanted to have a peaceful protest,” Salmeron added. “There are lots of local and family-owned businesses in Hillsborough so we would hate for those to be affected in the process. North Carolina wasn’t doing a very good job having productive and peaceful protests, so we wanted to set that example. Orange County wasn’t doing much to provoke change, so I wanted to get as many people as I could, especially from such a small town, and just try to make a small dent as big as we could in the nation.”
The protests were organized in cooperation with the Hillsborough Police Department, and safety was a priority.
“I worked with Lieutenant Jason Winn. He was the one who took everything to the forefront with all of us. He was very easy to work with and cooperative,” Salmeron said. “I brought up with him the idea of a walk, instead of a standing protest, and he got that all figured out with me, so that was very kind of him to move forward with that idea and not reject it. He dedicated a lot of his time to helping us out. He also reached beyond that and discussed with us on a more personal level about our experience with the Hillsborough Police Department, so that was really meaningful to both me and Colin Davis.”
“We had to make sure that with what we were doing, we didn’t need any type of permit,” Chenoa said. “During the protest, the police came and showed their support and we took a few pictures.”
“I think there is a lot of distrust, there’s a lot of anger, emotions are really raw,” Hillsborough Police Chief Duane Hampton said. “The men and women of the Hillsborough Police Department work really hard to connect with the community all the time, but all it takes is one really bad thing like this (the killing of George Floyd) that doesn’t even happen here, it’s not our people, it’s not even our way of thinking, but it drives such a wedge and it’s going to take time for everybody to heal. I know folks are angry at law enforcement and the justice system, but I sincerely hope folks can see us as partners in fixing them, and making it better.”
“One of the biggest things that will help combat police brutality is when we have community involvement with the police, because the community and police relationship is one of the best ways that we can combat the fear and prevent murders like this from happening again,” Colin O’Hagerty said.
The students came from different backgrounds, but they were all filled with hope for future generations and all had the same underlying purpose: to make a change.
“It’s important for me as a white man to speak up for my friends of color because I need to use my privilege for something good and stand up for what is right,” Colin O’Hagerty added. “I can’t just stand by and watch these people be brutally murdered by the police and not do something about it. Right now, if you aren’t being anti-racist, you are racist. Everybody needs to stand up if we are going to make this change in society.”
“What motivated me to organize the protest was wanting to be out on the frontend actually demanding change and wanting change for people,” Chenoa said. “Our generation is next, and I wanted our generation to be the change. People our age, our generation, are actually fighting for justice for our kids’ generation and our generation when we are adults. Since nobody was doing anything in Hillsborough, I wanted to start something in the city that I live in so people could see that my community wants change and feels affected by the movement as well.”
“It’s really inspiring to see that as we grow up and become adults, we know that change is coming because it is students, it is the young people that are bringing this change right now,” Colin O’Hagerty said.
Protesters voiced that there is still so much more to be done, however, the majority of the community’s response to the protests was positive and supportive.
“We had a lot of great responses from the community, as well as some negative, but the good outweighs the bad,” Chenoa said. “We did have a few people that drove by and said racial things and made negative comments, but we had a lot of people that were standing with us and were proud of what we were doing.”
“Overall, there were a lot more people than I expected here to support the community,” Elsa said. “There has been some ignorance and silence, but I know that the people here today have good intentions and stand with us.”
Towards the end of each protest and before the crowd dispersed, locals gathered at the Orange County Courthouse and speakers shared inspirational messages, as well as personal experiences of racism and racial inequity.
“Not only was it more fulfilling, but also a much wider response than I could have ever anticipated,” Salmeron said. “A lot of the people that I talked with about this asked me how many people I anticipated would come, and initially I said about 100, but we ended up counting, and there were at least 300 people that showed up. There were really good vibes all around, everybody was very happy to be there and we had a lot of people speak. What was great is that everybody had the opportunity to have their voice be heard. It was definitely a productive and constructive protest.”
“It was fantastic,” Chief Duane Hampton said. “It’s way past time for people to stand up and get involved. It’s terrible that we had to wait for something awful to happen, but let’s make something good because of it.”