A sea of peaceful demonstrators marched through Hamilton yesterday in a mass show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The protest swelled to about 7,000, making it the largest such gathering ever seen in the community, according to police.
The demonstration, organised by Jasmine Brangman, 29, and Dynera Bean, 24, came 13 days after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, who was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20, at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Both women said they had not expected such an outcome to a call for action that started on their Facebook group, Black Lives Bermuda.
They said it spread swiftly through social media and word of mouth, as mass demonstrations over Mr Floyd’s killing two weeks ago swept the United States and worldwide.
Protesters set off from Front Street at about 12.45pm and walked around Hamilton chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe”.
The latter was a reference to Mr Floyd’s pleas for air as a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Many were visibly moved by the charged atmosphere, with no sign of tension as fists were raised in solidarity.
Mwalimu Melodye Micere Van Putten, a Bermudian who has been a long-term activist in Philadelphia, also spoke before the march. She told The Royal Gazette: “The entire world can look at themselves, and white people particularly, and understand there can’t be any peace without justice.
“People need to understand the simmering anger that lies below the surface and that Bermuda is not another world. This attitude is global and it has to change.”
Ms Van Putten said her message to white people was: “Listen. Hear. Stop trying to defend yourself. It should take your breath away. Be glad we are only asking for equality, not revenge. Revenge is not in our DNA.”
Ms Van Putten, the founder of the Ashay programme that teaches black history and African culture, blessed the opening of the march, while Ms Bean and Ms Brangman held up burning sage in a ceremony of cleansing.
Ashay, which she said derived from a West African word in Yoruba meaning “it is good”, was chanted by the crowd while she spoke.
Demonstrators applauded the presence of white protesters, and Ms Van Putten called on white people to educate themselves on “an atrocity against my people”.
Placards could be seen on all sides of the street, with many flags, signs and shirts carrying the Black Lives Matter slogan and messages.
Signs included “The real virus is racism”, “We will not be silenced” and “Racism is a pandemic”.
Ms Brangman told the throng to “demand change” before the march set off for North Hamilton.
They paused outside Hamilton Police Station, where the chant changed from “I can’t breathe” to “We can breathe”.
Kevin Santucci, the chaplain of the City of Hamilton, stood nearby on Court Street. He said: “We can’t help but feel with our neighbours from America: the solidarity and desire for change.”
Mr Santucci said of the video of Mr Floyd’s killing: “In my gut I was torn apart. I could not eat. I had to bring myself back to grip. That’s what brings me to stand here today.
“I believe it speaks for itself. We have Bermudians and foreigners here with us and they all want to see a better way.”
Ms Bean and Ms Brangman took to the front of St Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, calling for the end of systemic racism in the island.
The crowd lowered heads in a minute of silence for Chavelle Dillon-Burgess, a young black mother who went missing in April and is now the subject of a murder investigation.
Edith Beek, 78, who was following the march, said she had watched many demonstrations over her life.
She added: “This takes the cake. Let us come together as one. It’s all over the world.”
Ms Beek said: “Honestly, I’m glad they’re doing what they’re doing. Enough is enough.
“Let’s work together and live together in harmony. That’s what the Lord wants us to do. I don’t hate anybody. I just pray for justice.”
A man outside the police station held up a sign saying “I am God’s child” and bearing the names of black men and women killed in encounters with American police.
He declined to be named but said black people had been subjected to “madness”.
“It didn’t start with George Floyd and it has to stop,” he said.
“Blacks were in slavery 400 years. We got out and they still treat us like slaves, but we are people like everybody else.”
A black Bermudian woman protester said she had attended an historically black university in the US to “immerse myself in my culture, because I could not get it here”.
She said she had experienced racism in the United States and “came back to experience institutional racism prevalent in Bermuda”.
She added: “It was awesome to see all these white supporters, and I hope they really mean it. This will be a catalyst for change.”
Speaking from the Flagpole on Front Street, Ms Brangman told the crowd that boycotts of stores could empower protesters and cut the prices of goods.
She said Black Lives Matter Bermuda would provide details by social media on weeklong boycotts that would target single stores at a time.
The organisers called on the crowd to lower on one knee, a popular gesture of solidarity with the movement, and thousands followed suit over several blocks.
Downpours interspersed the day, but cleared for the hours of the march in the afternoon.
Ms Brangman said earlier on Facebook that the march would go ahead despite heavy rain, posting: “Yes!!! We are still marching today. Do you think a racist stops being a racist just cause it’s raining?! #BlackLivesMatter.”