“I can’t breathe.” 

“You’re killing me.” 

About 300 men, women and children of all races marched for a mile along Third Street to Sanford City Hall Friday to protest against racial inequality and police brutality. 

Against a backdrop of dark clouds and rolling thunder, the crowd stood with fists up in silent protest outside the doors of the Sanford Police Department for eight minutes and 46 seconds, breaking the silence only to shout the words of George Floyd as a Minneapolis police officer kept a knee on the back of his neck for that same amount of time, ultimately killing him. 

Friday’s march was held in honor of Juneteenth, the 155th anniversary of the day slaves in Galveston, Texas, heard the news of their freedom, a full two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It was organized by DeCarlos Locklear, a City of Sanford employee who had originally hoped to co-organize the city’s first Juneteenth Cultural Arts and Music Festival, until the pandemic squashed those plans. 

Locklear said the goal Friday was to stand for change in local government. 

“Local government, local law enforcement,” he said. “We have a police chief who isn’t connected to this community. Racism is the problem in Sanford, and that’s why we’re here. I’ve been an employee of this city for 18 years, and I’ve seen racism as an employee. I’ve seen racism as a citizen. I’ve been a victim of racism by police here.”

Flyers for the march called for another hour of silent protest following the salute to Floyd. Marchers were encouraged to refrain from speaking to media outlets or newspapers during the protest. Several participants carried holstered handguns, and a few had rifles slung over their shoulders. The constitutionality of forbidding people from carrying guns at protests, as is the case in North Carolina, has been debated here and elsewhere since anti-lockdown protesters demonstrated in Raleigh back in April and May while carrying firearms.

Sanford City Hall was closed Friday, and most city employees were gone by the time protesters reached the building at 4:30 p.m. The only obvious police presence was an officer at the intersection of Third Street and Weatherspoon blocking traffic to let marchers through.

Locklear and co-organizer Phillip Leak both called City Hall a symbolic endpoint for the march, as that’s where change begins. 

“I want to ask the mayor and the city council why they haven’t stood with African Americans in this city,” said Leak. “Why aren’t they with us today? Why can’t they see the outrage? They don’t understand the heart of this community.”

Locklear said he was disappointed representatives from the city and the police department weren’t present to hear their protest or speak for the city.

“The mayor, the police chief, they need to come out here. They need to talk to the people,” he said. “They need to tell us what they’re planning, and what they’re intending to do in the future. They need to address police brutality. We need training. They need to make sure the incident that happens to George Floyd doesn’t happen here, too.”

“We’re here to peacefully protest, because that’s our right. I care about Sanford. I care about the employees of the City of Sanford. There’s a lot of them who feel they can’t speak up, and I’m here to speak up for them today. I’m tired. And it’s time for change. And I’m sacrificing myself right now. And I’m a righteous man. And I believe in this movement right here.”

It was unclear whether elected or police officials had received a direct invitation from Locklear or other leaders of Friday’s event.