'Leaving the footprint of change': Batavia holds a peaceful rally in support of 'Black Lives Matter'

It was one of the best and most powerful scenes 18-year-old Isabella Irish had ever witnessed.

For two hours Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of people of different races, religions, ages and backgrounds packed the gathering space outside the Peg Bond Center in downtown Batavia.

They spilled into adjacent parking lots and lined up along the riverfront, holding signs in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They sang together and prayed together. They condemned police brutality and demanded systemic change.

Organized in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Irish said, the goal of the peaceful rally was to give a voice to people of color who have long faced racism and oppression. But the fight doesn't end there.

"We all need to educate ourselves on social injustice and racial injustice. We need to teach our children that everyone is equal," she said. "Black lives do matter. And in Batavia, we will make them matter."

As a black woman and a recent graduate of Batavia High School, Irish says she has seen and experienced systemic racism throughout the predominantly white community for most of her life. Other speakers pointed to the disproportionate percentage of black people who are incarcerated, as well as to those who have been unjustly killed or unfairly discriminated against.

Like the other recent protests across the country, Irish said, the sit-in was a call to action.

"I don't want to stand for that anymore," she said. "I want people to realize this is happening, and we can't keep pretending it's not."

In an emotional speech that elicited cheers from the crowd, 21-year-old Devin Couturier of Batavia said white allies need to step up and "actively fight to dismantle the system that has been oppressing people of color for generations." She urged community members to vote for politicians who would do the same.

"The Black Lives Matter movement isn't about us, but it exists because of us," she said. "Change is past overdue. It's just waiting on us, and by the looks of it, it's not going to wait much longer."

State Rep. Karina Villa, Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke and several other community members also addressed the crowd, sharing messages of unity and peace. Organizers handed out educational resources and voter registration forms.

An assortment of signs seen throughout the crowd denounced police brutality: "Justice for George Floyd," "Police reform now," "I can't breathe." Others conveyed more general messages of equality, including, "Teach love, not hate" and "This is a revolution."

"Nothing is going to change until white America wants it to change," said Pat Sommerfeld, a lifelong Batavia resident in his early 60s. "You hope this is the turning point, but I've thought that a few times in my life. You can't stay in your house, that's for sure. There's still hope."

For Ashley Chaffin, who recently moved to Batavia, the event served as an opportunity to teach her 6-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter about the fight for equality.

Irish spoke highly of police in the Tri-Cities, saying Batavia police have supported the movement and helped keep her rally safe. But the deep-rooted issue of racial injustice stems far beyond the suburbs.

"Nationwide, I really want police to realize that the more they push ... the more anger there is," she said. "I don't want there to be a separation between them and us. I want them to see us as people, too."

After hearing of the large crowds expected at the rally, several Batavia businesses shut down for the day, and the city imposed a curfew from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 6 a.m. Thursday to discourage riots and looting. In the neighboring town of Geneva, shops and restaurants boarded up their storefronts, and the Geneva Commons shopping center was blockaded.

But the Batavia sit-in disbanded peacefully with a simple message from Irish: "Let's leave this place as we found it, only leaving the footprint of change."

• Daily Herald staff writer Harry Hitzeman contributed to this report.

  Groups of attendees relax on the lawn Wednesday during a Black Lives Matter sit-in in downtown Batavia. John Starks/
  Isabella Irish, an 18-year-old recent graduate from Batavia High School, organized a peaceful rally in downtown Batavia to give a voice to people of color who are frustrated and grieving. John Starks/
  Signs held by attendees of a peaceful rally in Batavia conveyed messages in support of racial equality and the Black Lives Matter movement. John Starks/
  Kayakers watch a Black Lives Matter rally along the riverfront in downtown Batavia. John Starks/
  Hundreds of people attended a peaceful rally Wednesday in downtown Batavia aimed at fighting against racial inequality. John Starks/
  Two men have a discussion during a Black Lives Matter rally Wednesday in downtown Batavia. John Starks/
  Several community members, politicians and other leaders took the stage Wednesday during a peaceful rally in downtown Batavia. John Starks/
  Geneva police have blocked all entrances to the Geneva Commons shopping center on Wednesday in hopes of deterring looters from making it a target. Jeff Knox/
  Windows are boarded up at the Old Towne Pub on Wednesday afternoon as downtown Geneva prepares for any possible riots or looting. Jeff Knox/
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