Peaceful local BLM protesters weigh in on Capitol mob

Susan Canty (far right) protesting with other members of Gulfport Corner for Black Lives Matter on 22nd Street South and 49th Street.

BY GABRIELLE SETTLES, Staff Writer 

GULFPORT — Following George Floyd’s brutal murder, the last eight months have been filled with racial and politically charged division. Many of us hoped we would see some changes for the better in the new year. 

Then on Jan. 6, millions watched a provoked, an enraged mob of Trump supporters storm the Capitol building by any means they thought necessary — scrambling over walls, shattering doors and windows, and crushing anyone in their way as they raced to reach the House and Senate chambers, chanting and screaming the whole time. 

Despite this chaotic noise, a group of locals has quietly met together each week to protest for Black Lives Matter. Staying socially distant and wearing masks, they stand silently on a Gulfport street corner.

Gulfport Corner for Black Lives Matter members Phyllis Plotnick (right) and Michelle Unterberger (left) protesting on 22nd Street South.

The only words they use are the ones on the signs that they hold up: “It’s Beyond Time: Justice for All,” “Wipe Out White Supremacy,” “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter” and other straightforward phrases. 

The group, officially known as the Gulfport Corner for Black Lives Matter (GCBLM), said demonstrating against racism in silence is an effective way to cut through the noise and draw attention to the cause for equality and equity for the lives of Black people. 

Susan Canty, a member of the group, shares how important it is to take a stand. As an African American, she wants to see Black mothers and fathers not have to worry about their children when they leave their homes.

“I do have a son, and I do have a grandson, and when I look at them, I know that it could be one of them that has been killed senselessly. So that alone is enough for me to do something,” Canty asserted.

Canty said the silence is a peaceful way to share the cause with those who drive or walk by. Most passersby honk their horns and wave and smile, and some raise their fists in solidarity. Canty recalls when a driver passing by was so moved that she turned around and drove back.

“She got out of her car with tears in her eyes, and she thanked us for being out there,” Canty recalled. “She said, ‘You just don’t know how this makes me feel.’ So she did stay and protest [with us] that day. That, to me, was profound.”

GCBLM has another firm protocol — remain consistent. The group began demonstrating on June 4, 2020, soon after Floyd’s murder, and they have continued to demonstrate twice a week for 30 weeks and counting, without fail.

GCBLM Organizer Phyllis Plotnick explained, “We wanted to have a presence in Gulfport, to let our community and the passersby at this very important intersection know that we do care and that we do believe in justice and we’ve been seeing all the inequities that come from systemic racism.”

Gulfport Corner for Black Lives Matter members Liz Snow (forefront) and Pat Cohen

That’s something important to Gulfport residents Liz Snow and Pat Cohen. When they heard about the weekly demonstrations, they immediately made signs of their own and joined the group.

“I love the continuity of this particular group because we just keep doing it,” Snow said. “I think that’s really important because the thing that happened to George Floyd isn’t just happening one day. It happens every day in little ways.”

Right now, the GCBLM is made up mostly of members who are not of color, but that isn’t hindering them from decrying racism against Black people. Snow said sometimes people lean out of their windows and yell: “Where’s the Black people?”

“Like it would just be their job to do this,” Snow quipped. “To me, it’s not a Black problem. It’s a white problem. So why should they be doing the work? I think it’s my job to work in the white community to talk about how I’ve changed, how I’ve unlearned things. I always thought I wasn’t racist. But there’s no way that you grow up in this country without having it touch you, and if you start doing the work, you realize when it comes up.”

Gulfport Corner for Black Lives Matter member Marge Keller

Canty, a St. Petersburg resident, has invited her African-American friends to join but feels concerns about COVID may be holding them back.

“I do think that if it was under different circumstances, I could have had at least a dozen people of color with me,” Canty said.

Snow said 95 percent of the response to the Gulfport group’s protests has been encouraging, but some people have reacted angrily. Drivers have shouted, cursed and thrown up middle fingers. One man got out of his car to confront them, and another mooned them.

BLM protest vs. Capitol mob

That is a small portion of the verbal and physical backlash that Black Lives Matter protests across the country receive — despite nearly 93 percent of last year’s demonstrations being peaceful ones, as reported by nonprofit research group ACLED. Protesters were met with onslaughts of tear gas, rubber bullets, physical beatings and deaths from police officers and self-proclaimed vigilantes. Also, last year more than 14,000 BLM peaceful protesters were arrested. 

But the mob at the Capitol building did not receive the same treatment. The rioters stormed, breached and vandalized the building for more than two hours. Police presence was severely limited –graphic images revealed that while in one part of the building, an officer was nearly crushed to death, screaming for help, other officers moved blockades out of the way for the mob, and one even posed for a selfie.

Reports show that thousands of people rioted the Capitol grounds, but it is estimated that less than 100 people have been arrested.

Cohen feels the difference between the response to the riot and BLM protests is astounding.

“I think one of the differences is, when we march for Black Lives Matter, we’re afraid. We’re afraid of the police; we’re afraid of other attackers, we’re afraid of sometimes people in pickup trucks,” she asserted. “I didn’t see any fear with those people [at the Capitol]. They were not afraid. They know that they have people behind them in authority, and we don’t always feel that way.”

Fellow GCBLM demonstrator Michelle Unterberger chimed in, saying, “I can only speak for our silent protest. The important word is ‘silent.’ There was no silence in Washington last Wednesday, only noise.” 

Unterberger points out that when a young white man shot and killed two people at a BLM protest, he was given something to quench his thirst by police officers. 

“Water to a murderer. Selfies with a rioter! Both white, neither innocent,” Unterberger angrily said.

The day after the riot, GCBLM members said they communicated to decide whether they would do a demonstration that week out of safety concerns. Snow said nobody blinked an eye — they all said yes.

“It’s more important than ever. You can’t not be there the day after something like that happens. We need to be there,” Snow averred.

So, GCBLM once again gathered at the corner with their signs, and they were met with lots of positive responses. Drivers honked and waved nonstop — including a police officer. The demonstrators jumped up and down in excitement.

“That was the first time a police officer honked for us!” Unterberger exclaimed. 

GCBLM member Marge Keller said hopefully the Capitol events helped people to realize that they need to do more.

“I feel like well-intentioned people might actually realize they need to be more than well-intentioned,” Keller stated. “That they need to actually stand up and do something, and there’s many ‘somethings’ that can be done.”To get involved with the Gulfport BLM demonstrations, email loloruby@hotmail.com.

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