MONROE — The line of marchers walking in solidarity down Main Street stretched as far as the eye could see.
Hundreds of peaceful protesters flooded the streets of Monroe on Thursday morning for the Justice March for George Floyd. Chants — such as “Black lives matter!” and “I can’t breathe!” — were shouted throughout the 2¾-mile march from downtown Monroe to Lake Tye Park, as neighbors came together to protest the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement in this country.
Protests following the death of Floyd, who was killed in police custody May 25 in Minneapolis, aren’t just concentrated in big cities like Seattle. Peaceful and passionate rallies have been hosted in Snohomish County communities like Monroe, Stanwood and Lake Stevens, where residents say they feel connected to those protesting across the globe.
“I never imagined the amount of people who were going to come out here,” said Monroe march organizer Isaiah Cole, who identifies as white and African American. “I’ve never been so proud to be part of Monroe than right now. We’ve definitely had our problems, but I’m overwhelmed with pride right now for our community. I definitely feel this is going to be a turning point, not just for our community, but for the world.”
Cole, a Whitworth University sophomore and Monroe High School graduate, only began organizing the event Monday. But it was enough time to draw a large turnout for the march, which began at Grocery Outlet in downtown, made its way west along W Main Street, through the commercial district, then into a neighborhood, before arriving at Lake Tye Park.
The protesters were a diverse group, many carrying signs that called for change or contained names like Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black people who have died at the hands of law enforcement. Most wore masks in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Observers along the side of the road clapped their approval, with some setting up water stations for marchers.
”For me it was emotional,” said march participant Andrea Warner, who identifies as African American and biracial. “I have been silent in this community, simply because I don’t see a lot of people of color, and I was hesitant to come out today. But I needed to make a stand. At home I feel like I’m kind of going crazy, the emotions are running high, and I feel like the only way I can make a change or attempt to make a difference is to get out here and join my neighbors, whatever color they are.”
Monroe police blocked off traffic to allow protesters to march unimpeded. Monroe Chief of Police Jeffrey Jolley, who marched alongside the protesters, said there were no negative incidents.
“I feel Monroe has surpassed my every expectation,” said marcher Jennifer Ryan, who identifies as Korean-American. “I think after the events in Snohomish, I was really hoping our town Monroe could set a different tone, and our march started with the police being with us, they are walking with us, the mayor is with us. There’s change and there’s hope and there will be justice. The turnout here shows how much all of our lives do matter, by acknowledging that our brothers, our black lives, matter too.”
When the march reached its destination at Lake Tye, impassioned speeches were delivered by Cole, former Monroe High School football coach Michael Bumpus, community member Junelle Lewis, Monroe High School teacher Michelle Patzelt and Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas. Lewis, in particular, captured the crowd’s attention with her recounting of Floyd’s death and her call for people of all colors to take action against racial injustice. Thomas introduced an official proclamation condemning racism.
Phone was dying, so this is a little late, but wanted to post one final thing. Here’s Isaiah Cole, the organizer of the Justice March for George Floyd in Monroe: pic.twitter.com/ohFOvj36Rs— Nick Patterson (@NickHPatterson) June 4, 2020
Jolley said it was important for him, as police chief, to be a march participant.
“It’s important for me to recognize — and some of the speakers brought it out — that people who are in power, whether it’s white people or mayors or police chiefs, have an obligation and duty to listen to the hurt that’s going on in their community,” Jolley said. “I think it’s clear, and should be clear to anyone, that what happened to George Floyd has happened before. But we need to take notice and we need to speak out, whether it’s positional authority or political authority or as a police officer, that it’s wrong. That was just wrong.”
The police chief called Floyd’s death “a murder of a human being,”
“As a police executive at this time, we have stood by too long without saying the truth, without telling the story, without speaking honestly about the subjects at hand, addressing the racism, listening to the people who were victims of racism,” Jolley said. “It’s a big change the way law enforcement looks at things. We need to say the truth.”
Elsewhere in Snohomish County
In Lake Stevens, hundreds gathered at Lundeen Park to protest Thursday afternoon.
People carrying signs poured into the park throughout the day, while others chanted along Lundeen Parkway as passing cars honked in support.
“I just wanted to do this because Lake Stevens has never really had our community come together like this, especially at this time,” said Raigan Reed, a Lake Stevens High School senior who helped organize the gathering.
The size of Thursday’s event led police to block multiple access points to Lundeen Parkway. In the days leading up to the event, organizers had regular contact with the Lake Stevens Police Department.
“It feels really good to know that they’re not against us at all,” Reed said. “They’re not trying to get in the way of anything. They’re just here to make sure we’re protected.”
Police Chief John Dyer said he expected Thursday’s event would remain peaceful, similar to the march in Monroe.
“We want people to be able to have their say,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Stanwood last Thursday, Mercedez Gonzalez stood by herself in the rain by McDonald’s with a sign that called for an end to police brutality.
Gonzalez, 17, wanted to join the thousands of others decrying racism worldwide.
“I do not agree with how corrupt our justice system is,” Gonzalez said.
She grew up seeing her father, who is Latino, experience racism.
“I don’t like that my family gets treated that way, or people in general,” she said.
Later that day, Gonzalez said a passerby took her sign from her hands and told her to go home.
She came back the next day, with backup.
As word of her protests spread on social media, their numbers grew.
By Wednesday this week, over 20 people joined her at the intersection of Highway 532 and 92nd Avenue NW for peaceful protest.
“I never thought this many people would come out, especially our elders,” Gonzalez said.
As the group waved signs Wednesday afternoon, a chorus of supportive car horns joined their chants. But as their numbers have grown, so has the hateful backlash, Gonzalez said.
On day four, she said someone poured coffee on her. On Tuesday, a driver threw hamburger buns through their car window at the group. One protester said a passenger waved a gun at her as a car passed.
“My first day I couldn’t move, I was a deer in headlights,” Chelsee Roberts said. “We were constantly berated. And that’s why I’m still here. Now we’re fighting something local.”
Roberts wanted to join protests in Seattle, but didn’t have the money to get there. In Stanwood, Roberts said opposition is personal. She has worked and lived in town her entire life, spending seven years here as a hospice nurse.
“They know me,” Roberts said, of the passing drivers hurling insults or flashing a middle finger. “I took care of their sick parents.”
With bright blue hair, Roberts said she can’t participate in the roadside protests without getting recognized. Her first day joining Gonzalez resulted in several angry Facebook messages, she said.
But that familiarity also gives Gonzalez hope their efforts can initiate real change.
“I feel like we’re in such a small town, we can start something here,” she said.
On Wednesday, the teen held up peace signs to passing cars.
When they honked in support, she jumped up and down, triumphantly punching her fist in the air. Gonzalez threw her entire body into leading chants, her voice going hoarse as she pounded her checkered Vans on the pavement.
“Use your” … “voice!” “Use your” … “privilege!” bounced back and forth across the intersection.
Many of the Stanwood protesters said they felt connected to those marching in Seattle and cities around the world, but wanted to distance themselves from violence and looting.
“I want to show people we can protest peacefully,” Gonzalez said.
Small demonstrations, like the one in Stanwood, also allow those more vulnerable to COVID-19 to participate.
“A lot of us would not be able to go to a big protest,” Katie Farrey said, holding a “Moms for racial justice” sign. “Here we can come out and keep socially distant.”
For Le-Tia Swinton, a 2019 Stanwood High graduate, shows of support have felt personal.
“I grew up here,” she said, “and I was bullied for being African American.”
She showed up to protest for the fourth day in a row Wednesday.
“I represent my race as a half-black, half-Latino woman, and I feel it’s my responsibility to be out here,” she said. “I don’t want my sisters or my nieces to go through this.”
Herald writer Joey Thompson contributed to this story.
Nick Patterson: 425-339-3470; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.