by Shawn Nowlin
Residents of all ethnicities throughout the Roanoke Valley protested the death of George Floyd, an unarmed man who died on May 25 in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes for suspected forgery, last weekend. Martha Casey, 76, who describes herself as a longtime activist, says she attended rallies in Blacksburg, Lynchburg and Roanoke.
“Families had their children in all of the crowds. While people were angry about the death of Mr. Floyd and the racism in our country, there was no hint of any intention of violence,” Casey said. “All they had were signs, banners and their phones. The protestors were brave, strong and disciplined. Despite resistance from some, they still remained peaceful. It was awe-inspiring.”
The local chapter of Black Lives Matter asked Jordan Bell, 29, to speak at the Washington Park protest on May 30. Bell’s response to what can be done to improve relationships between the police and the community was simple: transparency, better dialogue, engagement and truth.
“If an officer sees another officer hurting peaceful people and putting fellow officers at risk, they have a duty to stop that officer from being able to harm more people,” he said. “Officers need to be trained on peaceful civil disobedience and how to assist a large spontaneous gathering to keep everyone safe.”
Other speakers at the Washington Park rally, Bernadette “BJ” Lark and Brenda Hale, called for community solidarity in eradicating systemic racism. Hale, the Roanoke NAACP Branch President, thanked the white people in attendance for their support.
Pastor David Jones led with a prayer before protestors marched up Gainsboro Road toward the police station on Campbell Avenue.
Like many others, Shay Brown heard about the Washington Park protest on social media. While she was unable to be present, she witnessed everything through live streams.
“It is said that Black women are angry, that Black men are dangerous and that when voicing an opinion or having the nerve to question something, that we are aggressive. This is not the case. We aren’t born violent nor angry. We feel deeply just like all people,” she said.
Several demonstrators carried handmade signs, with messages such as: “Who do you call when the murderer wears a badge?” “Cities can be rebuilt, our lives cannot!” “Justice for George.” “Black men are not expendable”
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
“I’m tired of being scared.” “Who do we call when police murder?” “Zero tolerance;” and “All lives don’t matter until Black lives matter.” Louis Garcia’s sign read “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.” When asked what message he wanted to convey, Garcia responded, “I’ve seen so many people – some who I thought were friends – stay silent right now and they don’t realize that their privilege is allowing them to do so.”
Only one thing surprised Freeda Cathcart at Saturday’s Washington Park protest. It was, she said, the violence a few police officers perpetrated on the peaceful gathering. Cathcart says she saw people get shot with rubber bullets and have pepper spray enter their bodies.
Protestors managed to inch closer to the department’s offices despite police setting up barricades along the street. State and local police officers were heard telling gatherers to leave or they could be arrested. According to Roanoke Police spokeswoman Caitlyn Cline, only one person was detained in relation to Saturday’s downtown protest.
William Sellari, co-host of the Our Voices Our Community podcast, adamantly believes that people will not rest until there is significant change.
“Community oversight by way of elected boards or through neighborhood organizations is something that I support,” Sellari said. “Police officers must be held accountable for people they are detaining. If a citizen dies on an officer’s watch, they and the supporting officers should all be accountable. Body cameras must be mandatory at all times and cannot be ordered to be turned off.”
“In order for us to start to come together we need to openly acknowledge the problem, he added. We need to let people be heard and seen. I see people of all colors caring about this movement. That’s important because now is not the time to stand silently beside us. Be vocally non-racist and care. Destruction is not what we are calling for. Violence is not what we have asked. We just want to be heard and not attacked for it.”
Officer Derek Chauvin, who was responsible for Floyd’s death, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.