‘Free-ish’: Juneteenth events celebrate past with an eye on the present

People celebrate Juneteenth in this 2015 photo from Washington, D.C. Juneteenth events in Arizona this year come against a backdrop of heightened awareness of police misconduct and systemic racism, but in the face of concerns about COVID-19. (File photo by Elvert Barnes/Creative Commons)

PHOENIX – Juneteenth has always celebrated the day 155 years ago when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the last slaves in Texas, but organizers say this year’s events in Arizona will also have an eye on the present.

“When you consider the systemic elements, as it relates to our plight, it just goes to show that once again, African Americans are not free, we’re free-ish,” said Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church Pastor Terry Mackey. “We’re still marching, fighting and protesting to have full equality.”

Mackey’s church is hosting a forum Friday night celebrating Juneteenth, one of a number of events around the state marking June 19, 1865, a day of celebration and unity for the Black community.

But Juneteenth this year comes against the challenge of celebrating in the face of COVID-19 and the backdrop of police killings, less than a month ago, of George Floyd and Dion Johnson that led to national protests and a heightened awareness of systemic racism.

While the anger in those protests sometimes erupted into police clashes, organizers say they expect to deliver a peaceful message this Juneteenth.

“There’s never any issue with the Juneteenth celebration,” said Gizette Knight, an organizer of “A March With Our Ancestors” on Friday. “The reason that it’s pretty big right now is because of what’s going on with the killings of men by police officers.”

Knight said her group’s peaceful unity march will begin at Phoenix Civic Space Park and end with a rally at the Arizona State Capitol. The march, from 4:30 to 7 p.m., will honor ancestors and support the Black Lives Matter movement.

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“We’re going to march down to the state capitol, we’re going to rally, and we’ll have a little bit of the tradition,” Knight said. “Because of COVID, a lot of the events were canceled, so we’re going to have an event of celebration.”

Juneteenth comes as COVID-19 cases in Arizona are surging, adding more than 13,000 cases in the last week – a daily record 3,246 cases on Friday alone – to reach a total of 46,689, with total deaths in the state rising to 1,312 on Friday.

Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday said local governments will now be allowed to set their own requirements for face masks, and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego called a special meeting of the Phoenix City Council Friday to vote on a mandatory face-mask ordinance.

Jay Mula, an organizer for Black Lives Matter in Casa Grande, said they “took all precautions” to protect people at their event from the coronavirus.

“We have about 700 masks, we got all different types of gloves and sanitizing stations. We got the whole community in on this one,” Mula said Thursday.

The group was still awaiting city approval to use Carr McNatt Park from 2 to 8 p.m. Saturday, but if it can’t use the park, Mula said the event will be turned into a block party.

“Just being able to educate the youth and let them know what the real Juneteenth is about, it’s about Black Independence Day,” Mula said. “July Fourth is really not our celebration day, our Fourth of July is really on June 19.”

Besides Casa Grande and Phoenix, the day will be marked with events Friday and Saturday in Ahwatukee, Scottsdale, Tempe and Tucson, among other cities.

Mackey said it is “very important” to continue celebrating Juneteenth with the societal issues faced today.

“We continue to look at this pandemic of racism, along with the pandemic of COVID, just how more so than ever we’re seeing it being displayed through police brutality,” he said. “If it were not for cellular devices, we probably wouldn’t know about George Floyd.”

The church’s Friday night virtual forum, which will be available on the church’s social media outlets starting at 6:30 p.m., will feature questions regarding the history of Juneteenth and how it relates to systemic issues still prevalent today.

On Saturday, Mackey’s church will host a Juneteenth Mask & Hand Sanitizer “Drive-Thru” Giveaway in the church parking lot from 7 to 9 a.m. Each person in attendance will be supplied with a free mask and hand sanitizer.

Despite the looming threat of COVID-19, Knight expects a good turnout at the event in downtown Phoenix – but she said the turnout is not as important as the mission.

“Whether there’s a big turnout or not, our mission is to educate and pay homage to our ancestors,” Knight said.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brett Bavcevic is a Chicago native who expects to graduate in summer 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in English. Bavcevic is a digital news and sports reporter for Cronkite News and has been a digital intern for the Phoenix Suns.