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‘I can’t breathe’: More than 100 protesters participate in downtown ‘lie-in’

SALISBURY — For ongoing protests to make a lasting change, advocacy needs to be unrelenting, says Paola Bustamante.

“We need to not let down. We need to stay focused on what the objective is,” Bustamante said as she gathered with more than 100 other protesters in downtown Salisbury on Friday afternoon. “We’re not going to solve systematic oppression from one day to another, but we need to hold accountable people that hold us accountable, too. We have always seen them as our protectors, people that are there to serve us and serve the community, but who else can we go to if those people are not held accountable?”

Bustamante was among the crowd of people participating in what organizers called an #Icantbreathe lie-in. People gathered on all four corners of the Square in downtown Salisbury — most on towels, yoga mats or sleeping pads and chanting phrases like “I can’t breathe,” “no justice, no peace,” “hands up, don’t shoot,” “black lives matter” and George Floyd’s name. Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis roughly two weeks ago has sparked nationwide protests, including several in Salisbury.

The protest occurred outside of the curfew times established by Mayor Karen Alexander earlier in the week.

Samantha Haspel, who helped organize the event, said the method of protest — lying on the ground — was an intentionally poignant one.

“It rang out as being very powerful to me. The image that we see again and again and again is black men and women in the street, on the ground. That’s the image and that’s what we have to be fighting against,” Haspel said.

Floyd stopped breathing when a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes. The incident was recorded in a viral video that sparked ongoing protests and led to murder charges against the officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck and aiding and abetting charges for three others who did not intervene.

And while there are more protests planned locally in Salisbury, Haspel said “the real work” starts when protesting stops.

“I’ve lived only in big cities for the most part until I moved to North Carolina, and the representation in cities like this is what is important,” she said. “We’re not a liberal hub. We are a small, mixed city, very divided politically, and I think it’s really important for us as allies to put our faces out there to let the people in our community know that we are fighting with and for them and that they are not alone.”

There’s work to be done in police reform, bank lending, education and other areas, said Haspel and Laurel Harry, another organizer. Bustamante and Diana Ramirez, who was standing with her on the same corner of the Square, said she surveys often involve questions that are “white and then everything else.”

“We’re in that ‘everything else,'” Bustamante said.

While she noted that her struggle was not identical to the one faced by black Americans, Ramirez recalled being viewed different than other students when growing up and attending a majority white school as well as their toys being lighter complexion. Ramirez carried a homemade sign with a quote she said was particularly important now — “all lives don’t matter until black lives matter.”

The ongoing protest movement, that black lives matter, is an issue of humanity versus racism, Haspel said. She said it was particularly encouraging on Friday to see people stop their cars, park and get out and join the protest.

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