Peaceful protest by 300 fills Bellows Falls Square

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BELLOWS FALLS — The chants of "Black Lives Matter" were heard all over Bellows Falls Saturday afternoon, as more than 300 people — men, women and a strong showing of young people — marched through downtown Bellows Falls and through some neighborhoods, bringing attention to the issues of social justice that have roiled the country in the past week.

The group gathered at The Waypoint Center, marched through The Square, and then wove through some residential streets, before coming back to the Waypoint Center where they heard from students who said racism and police brutality was an issue they and the community had to confront.

Twin sisters Ariann and Ariana Beltran, both 19 of Bellows Falls, along with Briane Goncalves, also 19, also of Bellows Falls, were part of a group that organized the protest on short notice, and said they wanted people in the Bellows Falls area to know that there is deep concern about racism in the community. The Beltran twins said their family is originally from Puerto Rico.

"We get the looks and everything else," said Ariana Beltran. "We want to spread the word."

"Our skin color has nothing to do with who we are," she said. "It's so good to see our town has our backs. Thank you, thank you," she said.

The turnout of more than 300 people — on a hot and muggy Saturday afternoon — buoyed the organizers. A similar protest in downtown Springfield Friday evening attracted between 400 to 500 people.

Protests have been held all over the state since George Floyd died while in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis. One police officer, who had his knee on Floyd's neck for close to nine minutes as he struggled to breathe, has been charged with second degree murder, while three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting the first officer.

As the teenage-led protest wound through the streets of Bellows Falls, a large protest was held in the nation's capital. Some protests nationwide have turned violent and resulted in looting and destruction of property. Since the officers have been charged, most protests have remained peaceful.

Carrying signs with slogans that have been seen in protests all over the country since the death of Floyd, the gathering of protesters was peaceful and went without incident, said acting Police Chief David Bemis, who marched along with the protesters. Other officers were on hand, on bicycles or in cruisers.

The Beltran twins, who said their family moved to Bellows Falls two years ago, said racism does exist in this small Vermont community.

They said they hoped to show other people in the community that many people are concerned about the issue, and that the issue is important to them and their friends and family.

Johannah Parker, 17, another BFUHS student, addressed the crowd, and said while she is white and can't share the pain of racism, she is trying to understand.

"I am not black," she said, "but I will mourn with you."

Ruby Besson, 12, of Bellows Falls, also addressed the crowd, wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. The young black girl said the strong show of support from the community meant a lot.

"I'm so glad Americans are open to this issue," she said.

Ariana Beltran said the march has nothing to do with the Bellows Falls Police Department, and the Beltrans and Gonzalves praised both the police chief, David Bemis, and the town manager, Chuck Wise, for helping them coordinate the protest.

The event was originally planned for the Hetty Green Park but was moved to the Waypoint Center for more space.

Attending the event were Wise and his family, as well as Gaetano Putignano, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, and his wife. Local political candidates also attended and marched: Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, Rep. Kelley Cota Tully, D-Rockingham, and candidate Leslie Goldman of Rockingham.

One man, driving a pickup truck with two large United States flags in the back and blaring "The Star Spangled Banner" on speakers, drove past the protesters during their silent vigil at the Waypoint Center, and earlier through the streets of Bellows Falls, but there was no reaction from the large crowd. Signs on the truck protested the use of masks.

"I appreciate everyone coming out and helping us," Gonzalves said.
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