It’s been nearly two months since the murder of George Floyd, but protests against police violence continue around the country, including here in Charlottesville. Over a hundred protesters took to the streets July 17 to amplify Black women’s voices and struggles, and demand justice for those who’ve been killed by police, including Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland.
Hosted by Defund Cville Police, the demonstration started in front of the Albemarle County Office building, where organizer Ang Conn welcomed the (masked) crowd and led several chants, including “No justice, no peace, defund the police,” and “Black women matter.”
Youth organizers (and twin sisters) Zaneyah and Zeniah Bryant, who are 14, also took turns shouting chants into their megaphone, alongside local activist and friend Trinity Hughes. Drivers passing by honked their horns in support.
While the group gathered on East High Street, a white woman drove around the public works truck blocking the road, and twice told the protesters they would “make good speed bumps,” according to tweets from the event and a Medium post from Defund Cville Police. The threat is especially chilling and violent given that Heather Heyer was murdered by a driver just a few blocks from where the protest took place.
The woman was soon identified as UVA undergraduate Morgan Bettinger. Her stepfather, Wayne Bettinger, was a Charlottesville police officer until he passed away in 2014.
When asked, the Charlottesville Police Department said it is “respectively declining comment” about the family member of a former member of the force.
Defund Cville Police called for Bettinger’s expulsion from UVA, but activist Zyahna Bryant says the group will not press charges. “We cannot and will not use/expect systems and institutions that disproportionately harm and criminalize Black people, to protect us at this time. They won’t. We protect us,” Bryant tweeted.
UVA released a statement via social media saying, “We are aware of the allegations on social media about a student’s conduct with respect to a protest in the city and are actively investigating the matter.”
The protesters walked down the mall before stopping in front of the Charlottesville Albemarle Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, where Conn asked everyone to take a knee and a moment of silence to honor the Black women who have lost their lives at the hands of police.
In front of the courthouse, Conn spoke about why money needs to be reallocated from the Charlottesville Police Department—which currently has a budget of $18 million—to different social departments and programs, especially the city’s foster care system.
Reading from last year’s Charlottesville Foster Care Study, she emphasized the disproportionate amount of Black and multiracial children who are referred to child welfare services, compared to their white peers in the city. These children are also less likely to be reunified with their families upon exiting foster care.
Conn, who spent time in foster care, invited Black people in the crowd who’ve been affected by the system to share their stories.
Sisters Harli and Kyra Saxon detailed the trauma inflicted on them after their parents split up, and their mother was no longer able to keep up with the bills. The family was evicted from their home, and CPS eventually got involved. Kyra was forced to live with the girls’ abusive father, while Harli was sent to a group home and later lived with several foster families. The pair said they begged to live with their mother, but the social workers assigned to their case—as well as a “racist” judge—did little to help them, even as they faced serious mental health crises.
After five years of battling CPS, the sisters were reunited with their mother.
“That’s what defunding the police is about—channeling those funds into assistance,” said Harli. “If somebody had come up to my mom and said here is some rent money, this never would have happened.”
Following several more speakers, Conn wrapped up the protest by encouraging attendees to call on City Council to slash the police department budget and invest in “real solutions,” such as an emergency response division, which could have prevented the violent arrest of an intoxicated unhoused man on the Downtown Mall earlier this month.
“We shouldn’t be criminalized for being human,” she said.