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'I can't breathe': Hundreds take part in peaceful demonstration against racial injustice in Aiken

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Crowds waving signs stretched along Whiskey Road in front of the H. Odell Weeks Activities Center on Saturday evening for a peaceful demonstration against racial injustice.

The gathering, which began just before 6 p.m. and included roughly several hundred people, was organized by the newly-formed Black Lives Matter Aiken Movement

The event joined a national trend of protesting against police brutality and racism following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

"If we can make change here, we can make change anywhere," said Makenzie Johnson, one of the group's organizers. 

Hundreds waved signs along Whiskey Road as traffic passed by honking and waving in support. 

Vanessa Golden, who held a "Black Lives Matter" sign with her husband and daughter, said she felt grief, anger and frustration as news of racial injustice spread across the nation. 

"At the same time, you're looking for compassion and understanding," Vanessa said. "As a mother of an African American son and a wife of an African American man, I don't want my family to be next." 

The demonstration drew residents of all ages and races. 

Philip Williamson stood along Whiskey Road with his wife Brittany and their four children, ages 1, 3, 5 and 8. 

As a white male, Philip said it was not only important for him to attend the event in support for his "brothers and sisters of color in Aiken," but to set the example for his children. 

He carried a sign that read, "Silence is violence."

"It's important for my boys and girls to grow up knowing we are all equal, we are all loved, and that when there is injustice we can't stand for that," Philip said. 

Several discussions and prayers were held in the parking lot of the activities center. 

Melencia Johnson with the Aiken Chapter of the NAACP spoke about the importance of voting as other NAACP members shared voting information with audience members. 

"When we fight, we win," Johnson said. "We can fight in many ways but one of those ways is to vote."

Throughout speeches, the crowd shouted chants including "Black Lives Matter." 

However, chants and cheering were silenced momentarily as the crowd was led in an 8 minute, 42 second moment of silence while the final words George Floyd were read aloud. 

Several members of the crowd took a knee while some laid on the ground. 

As Floyd's final words were spoken, a chant of "we can't breathe," broke the silence and echoed through the parking lot.  

The gathering concluded with the announcement that an additional demonstration will be led by children in downtown Aiken on Sunday. 

The idea derived from local child Hayden Leach who expressed an interest to his mother, a member of the BLM Aiken Movement, in organizing a march with his friends. 

The event, scheduled for 6 p.m. will take place on Newberry Street near The Alley. 

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