Nearly a thousand protesters took to the streets of downtown Charlottesville May 30, demanding an end to police brutality and justice for the murders of black people across the country, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade.
In solidarity with the dozens of other Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the nation, people of all races and ages carried homemade signs and chanted statements like “Cops and Klan go hand in hand,” “White silence is violence,” and “No justice, no peace.” Others joined in by car, blowing their horns and waving signs as they drove along Market Street.
“I was extremely pleased both with the turnout and the resiliency of the participants to remain peaceful…I am certain we got our message across,” says community activist and former Blue Ribbon Commission member Don Gathers, who spoke at the march.
But he believes there should have been “tens of hundreds more” at the event. “Anyone with a pulse and a moral compass should have been out there protesting the disgusting murder and ongoing brutalization of blacks across this country,” he says.
The march was initiated by local resident Ang Conn, who, after seeing the murder of Floyd on video, felt “just completely distraught with what to actually do.” Floyd died after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes, despite Floyd’s pleas that he could not breathe. (Three other police officers on the scene, who failed to intervene, were fired along with Chauvin, but only Chavin has been arrested.)
Conn reached out to multiple racial justice groups and put a local team together to plan the Charlottesville protest, and get the word out.
The event started at 3pm in front of the city’s police department, where activists, including Zyahna Bryant and Rosia Parker, led chants, gave speeches, and invited the crowd to take a knee. Demonstrators later marched down the mall to City Hall, then through Market Street Park, along Preston Avenue, and into Washington Park, chanting and listening to speeches from area activists and residents. Nearly all wore masks, bandanas, and other facial coverings.
While police in other cities have responded violently to protesters (including in Richmond, where peaceful demonstrators were tear-gassed Monday evening), cops did not confront the crowd in Charlottesville, and the event remained nonviolent. CPD, which has been criticized in the past for heavy-handed treatment of protesters, chose to have “officers remain at a respectful distance, so that people attending could engage in civil discourse peacefully,” says spokesman Tyler Hawn.
City Councilor Sena Magill was thankful that CPD took a hands-off approach to the protest, instead of “trying to stop it.” She says she’s also “proud of our community in general for coming out and saying enough is enough, and doing it in a way that was peaceful.”
As for Conn, she says she hasn’t thought much about how it was peaceful, or how many supporters came out. “We’re protesting black people getting murdered. That’s not fun. It wasn’t a party [or] a get together. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and there are millions of black and brown people locked up in jail cells…which was also what this protest was about.”
On Sunday, the Albemarle High School Black Student Union hosted a demonstration in front of the Albemarle County Office Building. Joined by community members, students of all races stood on the sidewalk in masks, chanting and holding signs with phrases like “Justice for George.”
“We wanted to continue the momentum. It’s important for us to keep protesting peacefully and raising awareness,” says BSU president Faith Holmes. “We’re actually really happy with the way it turned out…we weren’t expecting the numbers that we had. It was fulfilling to see people from [the community] come out and support Black Lives Matter.”
Moving forward, Gathers says he and other local activists will “continue to monitor the situation across the country,” and “should there be a situation that comes to light, God-forbid, here in Charlottesville, we certainly will be at the ready and quick to respond.”
Charlottesville has its own fraught relationship with the police. Following community anger over the tear-gassing of counterprotesters during the July 2017 KKK rally, and CPD’s failure to protect residents during the violent Unite the Right rally later that summer, City Council created the Police Civilian Review Board to enhance transparency and trust. After years of controversy and disagreement over the board’s bylaws, City Council appointed seven members to the board in February, but the board has not yet met—an eighth, non-voting member, who was required to have prior law-enforcement experience, was appointed at Monday’s City Council meeting. Councilor Lloyd Snook, however, announced during the city’s Cville360 broadcast on Tuesday that the board could begin virtual meetings.
Before Saturday’s protest, organizers also released a list of demands for the city, county, and state, which Conn read to the crowd on Saturday. It included an end to pretrial detention and home monitoring fees; the demilitarization and defunding of CPD; and the release of more people from jail and prison, especially given the current high risk of death from COVID-19.
Several Charlottesville officials offered statements condemning Floyd’s death and police violence against the black community. And while Magill did not comment on the specific demands, she says the recent incidents of police brutality around the country “have been weighing heavy on all of council” and, from what she’s seen, council is “committed to true change.”
“So many things are hard to get moving quickly, but we all know that we have to do something real,” she adds. “The time for thoughts and prayers is done—it’s been done.”
Updated 6/3 to reflect the recent appointment of a new CRB member and the board’s ability to have virtual meetings