As coronavirus cases continue to rise in Madison County, dozens gathered in Big Spring Park to demonstrate.
There were three distinct groups who came out Friday night: one made of multiple churches and their congregants, which held a "Day of Repentance" event; a Black Lives Matter protest, which included an event called "Together We Stand; and a counter protest movement, which consisted people who wore jackets from "SOAPA" (Street and Open Air Preachers of America) and held signs with messages like "No women pastors" and "Fake Christians go to hell!"
Only the "Day of Repentance" event had a permit from the city.
Masks were worn at varying levels depending on the group. The vast majority of people in the BLM gathering had on face coverings and a majority did in the "Day of Repentance" group, but none of the counter protesters wore masks.
Comedian Will Johnson wore his mask and was a part of the permitted gathering. He said it was important for him and others to wear face coverings while in large group settings.
"We do have to take proper precaution. Let's stop the spread. And I know people feel like, 'Oh, it's just too much!' but that's because they're smelling their breath up under there. Just put a mint in there and put your mask on! Mint and mask, they go together," Johnson said.
Johnson said he previously tested positive for coronavirus and was in self quarantine for the recommended 14 days. He said he was largely asymptomatic, but got a test out of an abundance of caution.
"I think the hardest thing about the coronavirus was not knowing: is it gone, is it still here, what do I do? What you do is stay consistent with your routine until you get the clear," Johnson said. "Stay in the house 14 days. It's not going to kill you. Just chill! Stay home, do some homework, get a coloring book, TicTok. That's what I did everyday: TicTocks. I started on TicTock."
After going through the experience, Johnson said he was even more vigilant about wearing a mask while out in public. His friend Aspen Bowie agreed.
"I think that's the biggest thing. You use wisdom and you do what is best for you and if you choose not to wear one, I'm not going to judge you, but I'm going to do what's best for me," Bowie said.
Around the time the "Day of Repentance" event began, the BLM gathering started. It included several speakers and singers who were pushing for significant change in Huntsville and said they were not ok with what the city had done so far.
"They need to learn to listen to what these people are saying. We're not going away. The response last week was deplorable and they have a lot of atoning to do for what they did last week," said Lynda Harrison-Gaines, one of the protesters.
Harrison-Gaines was there with her husband and son, all with masks. They said it was important to support the movement as a family and wanted to speak out against how Huntsville Police responded to the early June protests and the after action report given last week.
Huntsville Councilman Will Culver listened at the BLM protest and was asked to speak at the "Day of Repentance" gathering. He said he understands the calls for change that residents are making.
"What I'm hearing from the general public is they want to ensure that things like this (the killing of George Floyd) don't happen anywhere anymore. And for that to take place, it's going to require some revising and revisiting of our criminal justice system, which includes law enforcement," Culver said.
When asked about which steps he would like to see, Culver said one change need is that "police officers using the chokehold, that is going to have to be completely eliminated."
Huntsville Police told WAAY 31 they are currently listening to those protesting and working on ways to improve the department. They said there are some things protesters are calling for that have already been put into practice, like additional training for crisis intervention. The 16-hour course is currently mandatory for all cadets and there is a pathway to create certified mental health officers, of which there are currently about half a dozen.
Those officers work with Wellstone Behavioral Health and the Madison County Probate Judge to help avoid incarceration for those who have a mental illness.
During the "Day of Repentance," several pastors along with Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle spoke about the work that needs to be done to heal the city. At one point, the pastors gathered to pray over Battle and the work ahead.
"When you start talking about people coming back to God, repentance, it's a message that Pastor Henderson brought, he had it in his heart, wanted to bring it out to the city. He asked me to come and I thought, 'Wow, what a great message to give to the city,'" Battle said.
During these gatherings, two full senior classes made their way in and out of the Von Braun Center for their graduation ceremonies. Pastor Curtis Henderson from One in Christ International said seeing the grads amid the convergence of the three groups in Big Spring Park made him pause and reflect on the gravity of the moment.
"It was a great indication of how badly we need the city healed because when we have young people graduating, we have another generation rising and that's why this is important for our hearts to come together," Henderson said.
Meanwhile, Johnson said he was glad the main message of the day didn't get derailed, even as the counter protesters tried to pull attention.
"Everybody has different agendas, but if we're all of one accord, it's still going to go, it's still going to happen, nothing can stop that. There's going to be a disturbance. So, you know, it happens," Johnson said.