Not over: Activists reflect on Black Lives Matter protests, next steps in 2021

Protesters march through Charlottesville in July. PC: Eze Amos Protesters march through Charlottesville in July. PC: Eze Amos

While the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color this year, Black people have been dealing with “a pandemic of racism” in the United States for centuries, as Black mental health advocate Myra Anderson told C-VILLE over the summer.

When Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25, ultimately killing him, these deep wounds of systemic violence and oppression were once again ripped open, sparking protests across the globe—and here in Charlottesville—in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

From June to September, local activists led a string of demonstrations demanding an end to police brutality, and calling for justice for Black people who’ve been murdered at the hands of cops. The events drew large crowds of all races and ages.

“The killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery…they woke people up,” says activist Zaneyah Bryant, a member of the Charlottesville Black Youth Action Committee and a ninth grader at Charlottesville High School. “It put a spark on people, like wow this is happening to our people. This could happen to anybody—this could happen in Charlottesville.”

While protests against police brutality continue in places like Portland, Oregon, it’s been several months since people in Charlottesville have taken to the streets. Though there haven’t been any drastic changes made in the city—CPD’s $18 million budget has not been touched, for example—some activists believe progress has been made toward racial justice.

“These are tough and difficult conversations. Up until at least recently, people were reluctant to begin to initiate them, but now [they] are actually being had,” says community activist Don Gathers. “We’ve reached the point in the…racist history of this country where people are willing to have these conversations.”

“[The protests] really just opened up more conversation surrounding how the police interact with the community, and allowed for us to envision a police-free society,” adds Ang Conn, an organizer with Defund CPD. “We have community members looking at budgets, policies, things that never prompted their attention before. And when you have a lot of eyes on things, there is bound to be change.”

With the support of the community, Charlottesville City Schools was able to end its school resource officer program with CPD in June, another step in the right direction, says Bryant.

Other activists like Rosia Parker say they have yet to see any progress in the city.

“[My protests] were peaceful, decent, in order, and orchestrated with Captain Mooney. For them to deny me my march, I don’t feel it was right,” says Parker, referring to the city’s threat to fine her and other activists in August, and its denial of her event permit in September. “Other protests, no they didn’t help Charlottesville. A lot of people came out and supported Black Lives Matter, but at the end of the day, [it] didn’t do anything.”

“There’s been no change in the governmental structure—it has gotten worse,” she adds, citing the resignation of City Manager Dr. Tarron Richardson in September as an example of the city’s pattern of staffing instability.

Pointing to the police assault of a Black houseless man on the Corner last month, Bryant also fears that, despite the months of protests, Charlottesville police “have gone right back to their old ways—harassing Black people.”

In the new year, the fight against police violence and systemic racism must continue, the activists emphasize.

Though it may be a few months before protesters hit the city streets again, there are plenty of ways to remain involved in the fight, says Bryant. She encourages allies to participate in city government meetings and mutual aid programs, especially for people experiencing homelessness or food insecurity.

“If you are white and you see someone of color or Black being harassed, stand up and use your voice,” she says. “When you say something to those officers, you have power to stop them.”

The city government must also strengthen its relationship with Black communities, especially in light of multiple recent shootings in town, says Bryant.

“Those people in those communities are asking for more police presence. [They] feel unsafe,” she says. “But we can’t use [that] as a reason to say, ‘Oh they’re asking, so we have to keep harassing them.’ We need people to help them understand what they are asking for, and what they mean by wanting more police presence.”

For Parker, ensuring police and government accountability is a priority for next year, as the Police Civilian Review Board works to update its bylaws and ordinance, per the new criminal justice legislation passed in the General Assembly this fall.

“If that means the mayor and police chief have to go, then so be it,” she says.

In addition to advocating for the CRB, Parker plans to offer programs for Black youth through her community organization, Empowering Generations XYZ, with a huge focus on mental health.

“If we can educate our own, become peer-support recovery specialists, become more trauma informed, we can be around for our community, and won’t have to be overpoliced or underpoliced,” she says. “We won’t even need the police—we can do what we need to do ourselves in our own communities. It’s just about getting the resources and education.”

Finally, Gathers and Conn say they will keep on pushing City Council to slash CPD’s $18 million budget, and reallocate those funds to various social services and programs within the next year.

“That’s a lot of money, and people are really struggling out here with a lot of things,” says Conn. “We must continue to work towards hacking away at that police budget until it’s zero.”

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Melanie Tuominen

Yes defund the police and establish a network of community supporters. Let’s reduce the number of weapons domestic abusers use on those they abuse and hold power over, provide adequate housing and local food, safe environments to educate our youth.