How this Mercer graduate planned a peaceful protest for George Floyd

When recent Mercer graduate Juliana Arenas Velázquez woke up on the morning of May 27, her Twitter timeline was filled with videos of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis whose death has sparked outrage over racist police brutality in America. 

“I couldn’t even get myself to click on it,” Velázquez said.

Velázquez immediately called her best friend, University of North Georgia student Ariana Hughlon. They cried over the phone before turning to their families for guidance.

“Her mom was like, ‘Okay, do something about it. Stop crying, wipe your tears, let’s do something,’” Velázquez said.

Velázquez graduated from Mercer in May with degrees in Biology and  Spanish. 

Velázquez began searching for a protest in Atlanta after reading about demonstrations in Minneapolis on social media. When she didn’t find any events, Velázquez and Hughlon decided to join forces with other local activists to organize a march of their own on May 29.

The pair started organizing that same day, scouting locations and contacting the city for a permit. Velázquez lives in a suburb outside of Atlanta and planning a route for the march required knowledge of streets downtown. Overwhelmed by the task of organizing on such short notice, Velázquez told Hughlon there wasn’t enough time. She said Hughlon responded that they would be there even if the crowd was just family and friends.

“None of us had done anything like this before,” Velázquez said. “I honestly thought it was just gonna be the five of us and family and friends that wanted to be out.”

After spreading the word of requests for donations, supporters brought in water, snacks and masks to protect demonstrators from spreading COVID-19. Some even sent money directly to the group, urging them to spend it on posters, markers and hand sanitizer. 

Velázquez said the response to the march was overwhelming.

The group was able to reach out to groups like the NAACP to back the event. On the day of the march, Velázquez said that they estimated about 5,000 people participated. Then the NAACP said  that the real number was closer to 20,000. 

“We couldn’t even think,” Velázquez said. “I started crying and we were like, what did we just do?”

Velázquez was back home watching the news when rioting began at the CNN Center. Shocked by how quickly things escalated, the group was unable to process the success of their organizing until the next day. They decided to continue the momentum, launching an Instagram account titled Children of Equity the following week.

“We got the protest started, now we’ve got to figure out, what was the purpose of that? What do we need to change, or what do we want to say?” Velázquez said.

The group has since met with local activists and even celebrities. Their contact with the NAACP led to a meeting with rapper T.I..

“We went to this meeting and it was amazing and he heard us out,” Velázquez said. “We talked about our plan and it wasn’t like him being famous, it was like, ‘I’m listening to you, let’s get this done.’”

Velázquez said the group plans to register Children of Equity as a nonprofit to address issues of injustice towards any group, though the current focus is institutionalized racism.

“That’s our main focus right now because that’s what needs to be spoken about as of now, but we want to speak out for other communities that are being harassed in this nation,” Velázquez said.

Velázquez’s advice to college students looking to get involved with activism is to speak out regardless of platform. She encourages people to pursue action beyond social media, and said that no action is too small.

“Your voice is as valid as anybody else’s, and I think that if you think something’s right and needs to be spoken about, like, go out there and do it,” Velázquez said.