WESTPORT — For the third time this week, hundreds of people from around the area of all ages, race and gender gathered peacefully to protest police brutality and systemic racism.

The protests, like those nationwide, came as a response to the killing of George Floyd and other black people at the hands of police.

“I never met George Floyd, but I knew him. We knew him. He’s my father, my mother, my brother, he’s our black friend...he’s me” Natasha Johnson, a Staples High School senior, said at the protest on Friday. “As long as he can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. We can’t breathe.”

Johnson, alongside Niah Michel, a Staples senior, and Isabel Geelan organized the protest. In February, Michel submitted a letter to the editor on WestportNow detailing challenges students of color faced from both their peers and the school’s staff.

“Racism has been in front of our eyes for decades and decades, and the justice has done nothing about it,” Michel said. “African American men, women and adolescents have to do so much to be heard.”

Several students joined Michel to discuss challenges they also faced in the Westport Public Schools system.

“Coming here is not enough,” Chet Ellis, a Staples graduate, said. “So many of you here walked in the halls of Staples High School and you walked past racism and you walked past microaggressions. I see so many of you in the crowd who stood silent when I needed you the most.”

Ellis, who won the town’s teen diversity essay contest last year after writing about the racism he faced as a black student, said education is important to break the walls between communities.

“I know a lot of you stood by and watched racism happen not because you were bad people but because you didn’t know,” he said, adding those gathered should read black literary legends like James Baldwin. “Learn about black people.”

Several businesses around town boarded up their storefronts in the days leading up to the protest after rumors circulated around town of outside agitators. But hundreds marched peacefully from the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge to the Westport Police Department.

“In the town of Westport and at the Westport Police Department, I’m going to be very clear, black lives do matter,” Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas said.

Koskinas said law enforcement has a lot of work to be done to regain the trust of the nation.

“We’ve had discussions here and it’s been very clear: If a single police officer feels what they saw (happen to) George Floyd was just, they need to resign,” he said. “That’s a very clear message here.”

Koskinas said police have to be morally sound, ethical and legal in their work.

“When we look at these latest incidents, we lack every one of those,” he said. “We fail when we don’t do one of them correctly and we certainly fail when we do all three of them wrong.”

Wilner Joseph of Stamford said the unity saw at the protest was important but emphasized the work has to continue.

“This can go a long way if we’re consistent,” he said. “Us as black folks have been hurting for so long.”

Chaquanzha Stephenson, a community activist and founder of DOPE Inc., assisted in organizing the protest but credited the young women who took leadership in putting it together.

“They were really the focal point of all this. I’m just so proud of them,” she said.

Stephenson said it’s important to stay abreast and keep pushing for change.

“Continue that outrage, but be outraged enough to be a change,” she said. “If you know someone that’s in the position, help them with that legislation, help them change those policies, help point it out when you see it.”

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com