Article and photos by Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
A silent crowd marched through downtown Harrisonburg with a single voice on Monday. Hands pointed skyward in unison at a community prayer event earlier that evening. And hundreds more gathered Wednesday evening in an online town hall to hear calls to action.
Racial justice advocates across Harrisonburg — all of different races, ethnicities and ages — have mobilized peacefully and en masse in the past week. They have employed a variety of tactics to protest systemic racism and police brutality, to pay respects to George Floyd and other black Americans killed by police and to call for change.
A silent yell for peace
On Sunday at 2 p.m., Maleke Jones had the idea to hold a silent march. He reached out to some of the organizers of a similar event in 2016, who helped him craft a Facebook event for the following day. When he woke up on Monday morning, 600 people had indicated they were coming – and that number continued to grow throughout the day. By the time they gathered in Liberty Park that evening, Jones estimates 1,000 people were there. He had goosebumps.
Monica Robinson, former president of the local NAACP chapter, addressed the crowd before they began walking. She gestured to her grandchildren, standing on a bench behind her.
“What you’re looking at in this visual is the future. Not just mine. This is all of our future, standing right here,” Robinson said. “Now, when you look up here, I want you to note something. This is not the George Floyd of the future. This is not the Breonna Taylor of the future … we are going to make a change.”
As the procession set off, filling the width of Main Street downtown and stretching down multiple blocks, Jones heard a noise as they passed by the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail.
“The people at the jail, they started knocking on the windows. That’s why we stopped there and raised our fists,” Jones said. “They were, you know, supporting as best they could in there. And then, as soon as we got to the top of that hill, I looked back and I could see all the way back to Liberty Park, and there was a group of people that still hasn’t even moved yet.”
It was equally powerful for those who joined the protest.
“I will never understand what it is like to be a black person in the U.S. However, it is my job to stand with them whether it is a silent march or a vocal one,” participant Alexa Lorenzana said.
Organizing a protest was new to Jones, a 2018 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University. He intentionally chose to hold a silent march after seeing protests in other cities that have escalated into violence.
“Just seeing the news, seeing people cause chaos, chaos around the city, vandalizing vehicles, graffiti … those were the things that we did not want to happen to the city of Harrisonburg,” he said.
That approach wasn’t lost on the march participants.
“I decided to attend the march because posting on my Instagram is not enough and simply saying black lives matter is not enough,” said Ceci Hughes. “I appreciated how our march could be silent to prove that we are not just looking to riot and loot, we are asking for change and justice for those who have lost their lives.”
A police escort went before and behind the marchers. Jones said the Harrisonburg Police Department had asked to participate and walk in the march, but he and the other organizers decided against it.
“One, because it would undermine what we were striving for, and two, because there is so much trauma around police. Not just specifically Harrisonburg police, but police in general. And so, just with that, if they were marching with us, then people would not feel okay being their full selves and expressing themselves, [or] feel controlled in some type of way by the cops. And that’s exactly what we were trying to avoid,” Jones said.
He felt the escort was helpful, though, especially because he had originally intended for the marchers to stay on the sidewalk.
When Police Chief Eric English talked to Jones about how many people were likely to attend, he knew “there was no way” the sidewalk could hold them all. He said his staff reached out to him, wanting to join the march because “we support the cause.”
“What they’re protesting is legitimate,” English said.
Despite being told no, English said he “applaud[s] the organizers” for organizing a moving and peaceful event.
Jones said he hasn’t started planning another event yet, although there is talk of it among the march volunteers. But his phone has been lighting up “nonstop” with texts, calls and notifications from other community organizers asking for advice, to join their events and to lead other marches.
Other community leaders offered high praise for the march, too.
Stan Maclin, founder of the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center and organizer of a series of peace rallies, lauded the organizers of the silent march as the next generation of activists.
“These young people – they were organized. They had water, they had medical personnel there in case somebody needed them … I was so proud of them,” Maclin said. “And then there were several of them who just came up to me and said, ‘hey, we appreciate the struggle, that you’ve been there for us. And now, we’re going to pick up the torch.’ So I’m just proud.”
City leaders agreed.
“Yesterday I witnessed the best of Harrisonburg,” Mayor Deanna Reed wrote on Facebook Tuesday. She attended the march as well as a prayer gathering that afternoon organized by City Council Member Chris Jones. “We had two beautiful expressions of prayer, protest and peace … What we are watching unfold daily is the outcry of our 400 years of oppression and racism. Black people have had enough, and are beyond going back to business as usual.”
Standing in prayer
The prayer gathering drew a few hundred people who sang and prayed together for racial justice at the courtyard outside the public safety building and across Main and Elizabeth streets.
“Thank you for joining me as we communicate to God. As we communicate to him and ask him for his help in our reconciliation unto him and to one another so that this land, so that our country can move forward in a healthier and more productive way for all people,” Chris Jones said.
He told The Citizen later that he decided to hold a prayer gathering in particular, because “watching events shift and escalate around the murder of George Floyd, I found myself wondering how to gather with community members constructively … I thought that prayer, and coming together in love, would … accomplish that goal.”
He said he hopes the event “planted a seed” with the attendees to participate in local criminal justice reform.
Jones chairs the Community Criminal Justice Board, which typically only draws only a few members of the public to meetings. Jones said he hopes for more citizen engagement with the board to push for changes, and invites those who prayed and marched on Monday to attend the next board meeting on July 13 at 4 p.m. The location will be determined closer to date, based on the governor’s rules on meeting sizes and social distancing requirements at that time.
This work goes beyond activism for Jones.
“As an African American, I look at anything that will keep my community from being unnecessarily attacked, abused, and murdered as a necessary tool of survival,” Jones said. “Everything I do in regards to building community, spreading love, and working on criminal justice reform, and in a government role, is so that all of the community can benefit, but most especially so that my sons and my daughters and other African American children do not have to endure the same unfair evil reality that we’ve been forced to face for the last 400 years.”
Facilitating dialogue with law enforcement authorities
Maclin, who organized the rally last Friday that drew about 300 to Court Square, is hosting another gathering this Friday – a facilitated Q&A with Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst, Police Chief Eric English, and Anthony Wayne Bailey, a judge in the local juvenile and domestic relations district court.
At the first rally, Maclin said, a few attendees called out “where is Marsha Garst?” She contacted him afterward, and he planned the second rally.
“While other communities are crying out to hear from the people, let’s say the power structure, our civic leaders are open,” Maclin said. “They’re open and receptive to hearing and listening and to work with us. The community of Harrisonburg is a community that has a conscience.”
He said he believes that sets Harrisonburg apart.
“There’s a reason why our city is at peace in the midst of upheaval that’s going all around the nation. There’s a reason why. And we need to continue to flesh out that reason that makes this community as such,” he said.
He said he envisions Harrisonburg as an example for other cities to come learn from “a model beloved community. A peace community.”
Maclin set up this forum because he believes in the power of transparency in leadership and said he has faith in civic leaders – for instance, that Garst is working to improve conditions in the local jail and that English won’t tolerate brutality on his police force.
Preventing brutality from within the police department
English told The Citizen that the Harrisonburg Police Department has a number of policies and procedures in place to prevent officers from using excessive force and to hold them accountable if they do.
One example is requiring officers to self-report when they use force during an arrest — which includes tackling a person in a chase and discharging a weapon — instead of only relying on citizens to file complaints. Any time there is a use of force, the officer’s body camera footage is reviewed by a board that includes two civilians. They also review footage at random that doesn’t involve uses of force, to ensure that officers are interacting constructively with local residents.
English implemented this review board after coming to Harrisonburg in 2018 from Richmond, where he served on the police force for 29 years.
He said agency leadership is key in preventing events like George Floyd’s death, especially given the reports that Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin, who killed Floyd, had a history of at least 17 complaints and had shot two suspects in the past, one of whom died.
While not every complaint may have been substantiated, English said, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Red flags should have been raised, and internal systems should remove officers from the police department when necessary, he said.
“If I see something like that occurring in our agency, they will be held accountable,” he said.
Some organizers at the silent march accused the Harrisonburg Police Department of showing racial bias in their use of force, based on documents they received through a Freedom of Information Act request last year. One document says that in 2018, the police department used force 40 times – although multiple counts could be tallied in the arrest of one person, such as if two officers take someone to the ground together. Of those 40 counts, the document lists 24 as uses of force against white people, 13 against black people, and three against Hispanic people.
English said in an email to The Citizen that “without context it doesn’t tell the entire picture,” and said he would provide more data about arrests made in 2018.
“We agree with the cause. We agree with the protests,” English said, and he hopes people continue to speak out.
Calling on academic institutions
In addition to Friday’s rally, English will also be present at a virtual town hall next Wednesday, hosted by JMU’s Center for Civic Engagement on “rethinking policing and building community trust.” The town hall will be the second in an ongoing series. The broadcasts launched this Wednesday with a panel discussion on systemic racism and building an inclusive society.
About 250 viewers tuned in on Facebook live at the peak of the panel. Carah Ong Whaley, associate director of the center, said the goal is “to put what is happening across the country in historical context … to talk about the role of protest in a democratic society … to allow for student, faculty, and staff voices, especially black voices, to provide their perspectives and experience so that we can have a better understanding of their needs, and what JMU can do to address racism and racial inequity.
Aaliyah McLean, the center’s Woodson Martin Democracy fellow for 2020-21, asked how JMU can hope to honor Paul Jennings, the enslaved personal servant of James Madison, with a residence hall while also having buildings on campus named for Confederate leaders, such as “Stonewall” Jackson and Turner Ashby.
“It’s not just the police killings of black men and women. It’s the subtle reminders that this space is not for you,” said Jordan Todd, student learning initiatives coordinator for JMU’s office of residence life. “Black students face a continual, subtle assault on their value and belonging” by studying and working in these “historically white” spaces.
Several panelists spoke about the responsibilities of white allies to educate themselves, listen to black people without tokenizing them and find tangible ways to contribute to racial justice.
“Listen to the ideas that are coming from black communities, especially coming from the black communities that are most marginalized or vulnerable … it’s then your job to continuously generate these actionable steps to hold yourself accountable to those ideas,” said Amy Lewis, a professor at JMU’s School of Music and JMU’s Center for Inclusive Music Engagement. “To push for an end to systemic racism and create an inclusive, equitable and liberated society.”
McLean advised allies to “be intentional and be genuine” when checking in with black friends and colleagues. “We’re always thinking about race.”
Contributor Sukainah Abid-Kons provided additional reporting for this article.
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