In the days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, hundreds of protests against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement sprang up around the country.
Across the Merrimack Valley people organized in their communities to protest and prompt change for racial equality, including a protest at Shawsheen Square that drew about 500 people June 1.
At the state level, legislation was quickly introduced to ban chokeholds and call for other police reforms in Massachusetts. Also in the past six months, local governments and organizations like Merrimack Valley Black and Brown Voices have implemented new ideas to continue the conversation about diversity and inclusion when protests slowed.
In Massachusetts, after multiple rounds of revision, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill Thursday that bans chokeholds, outlaws the use of tear gas at large demonstrations and limits no-knock warrants.
At the local level, in the days following the protest multiple incidents in town that were potentially racially charged came to light. Town Manager Andrew Flanagan then created the town's Diversity and Inclusion Division at the end of June.
Since then the town has been working with a consulting firm to conduct an audit on diversity and inclusion, said Jemma Lambert, director of the Community Services Department which oversees the diversity and inclusion division.
There is currently an anonymous survey for residents to send feedback to the town's diversity and inclusion, then the consulting firm will be hosting focus groups to gather more in-depth information, Lambert said. Then the town will get the results and the newly formed Commission on Equity and Inclusion will be implementing steps to increase diversity and inclusion, she said.
"There's a lot of really cool committed passionate people who want to be part of the work and to make things better here," Lambert said. "It's an absolute honor to work with them and we will make some positive change to Andover."
Andover is also introducing bias training for every employee in town, Lambert said.
‘Just the beginning’
Chants of “No justice, no peace,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot” rang out across the region over the summer after Floyd was killed May 25.
In Andover — and across the Merrimack Valley — the protest remained peaceful, but people had a variety of reactions.
Aileen Torres, 23, came to the Andover protest from work, she previously told The Andover Townsman. When her managers heard about the protest they began to rearrange in anticipation of violence.
“My coworkers and I were saying, ‘They really think we are out here to be reckless.’ That’s not at all the point — and they definitely missed it, getting rid of everything in the storefront, closing the store early,” Torres said.
“I know that because of a lot of video recordings of the protests, that a lot of people are spinning it,” she added. “... I knew that I wanted to come here and meditate in peace and actually kind of have this light of protection for so many people coming out today.”
In Methuen, more than 200 people marching through neighborhoods drew residents from their homes like Donald Blount, who heard their chants while working in his garage. He didn’t know the protest was happening but was happy to see them pass by.
“I love this,” Blount, who is Black, said. “This is just the beginning.”
Organizers like the three women leading Merrimack Valley Black and Brown Voices took charge by creating resources for Black, Indigenous and people of color — commonly abbreviated to BIPOC.
Elizabeth Walther-Grant of Andover created the local nonprofit with Mayara Reis and Bria Gadsden both of North Andover. They met via a Facebook post and then again in-person over a glass of wine in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death.
They gathered together in mourning and in solidarity, then created the a Facebook group to find fellow community members who share the same struggles, Walther-Grant said.
Shortly after, a mother of a North Andover high-schooler reached out to the Facebook group to help her daughter plan a June 8 vigil for Floyd in North Andover, Walther-Grant said.
“We got asked to help (with the vigil) and it became bigger than we are,” she said.
Then the women planned a Juneteenth celebration for the holiday that celebrates freedom from slavery when news of the Emancipation Proclamation made its way to Texas. In August, they created the Merrimack Valley Black & Brown Owned Market, which helped connect patrons with business owners of color from around the region.
They are looking to expand events in the coming year, Walther-Grant said.
The group allowed the women to connect people in a way they hadn’t imagined, she said.
Through the Facebook group she’s also seen mothers finding playdates for their children. And one mother found a barber who was able to cut her autistic son’s hair properly and well, Walther-Grant said.
They hope to continue educating allies and making the Merrimack Valley more inclusive because “the community is affected by (racism) whether a person is personally affected or not,” Walther-Grant said. “If you have a community that’s fractured or divided then it won’t be a great place to live.”