Park benches honor Black people killed by police, armed citizens

Park benches honor Black people killed by police, armed citizens

By Kristal Dixon,

Posted for:streetjustice

Smyrna couple Damon and Yashira Willis responded to the outrage surrounding police and citizen shootings of unarmed Black people by donating to social justice organizations, but felt that wasn’t enough.

They wanted to do something locally and since they spend a lot of time at Taylor Brawner Park, they felt that would be the perfect place to memorialize the lives of three Black people whose deaths helped reignite a national movement: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

The Willises memorialized three benches with plaques featuring the names of the three shooting victims at the park. The three plaques were added to the benches last weekend. Yashira Willis said they wanted plaques installed on the benches “so people would never forget that Black lives matter.”

“They have to say their names when they walk past those benches,” she said of park visitors.

The Willises brought their idea to Keep Smyrna Beautiful, which manages the city’s bench sponsorship program. Residents pay a sponsorship fee of $1,030 per bench. Once the fee is paid, city staff have the plaque produced and installed on a park bench. A total of six benches have been dedicated at the 10-acre park, located on Atlanta Road south of the intersection of Spring and Concord roads.

Damon Willis said the couple was surprised to learn that an anonymous donor helped pay half of the costs for the installation. To this day, they do not know who the person is, “but we are very thankful,” he said.

“We hope that this really does continue to be one other tool that furthers this movement,” Damon Willis said of the project.

Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical service technician, was killed when three Louisville Metro Police Department officers executing a no-knock warrant barged into her apartment on the night of March 13. No drugs were found at her home.

A few weeks earlier on Feb. 23, Arbery, 25, was fatally shot as he jogged in the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick. Prosecutors have charged three white men with murder: 34-year-old Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shots; his father, 64-year-old Greg McMichael, a former investigator for the local district attorney’s office; and William “Roddie” Bryan, the 50-year-old man who had joined in the chase and took the video of the shooting with his cellphone.

The case that has received the most attention throughout the summer is the in-custody death of George Floyd. Floyd, 46, died May 25 after former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for several minutes. Chauvin, along with three officers, were fired from the force and charged in connection with Floyd’s death.

City Administrator Tammi Saddler Jones said the city has received questions about the latest dedications. Prior requests did not include a review of Smyrna’s elected officials. Jones said Smyrna will now require dedication requests to be reviewed and approved by the mayor and City Council.

The Willis said they hope the benches will not only begin conversations about police and citizen shootings of unarmed Black people, but propel people to start taking action against racism.

“As long as the park and benches are there, people won’t forget,” Yashira Willis said. “We hope not only they remember them (as people) who pushed the movement into a broader conversation, but they remember that there is work to be done and we are not finished.”


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