Community Perspective: The Steps and The Square

A perspectives piece by Jonathan McRay

Friday night, June 5th, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Harrisonburg. Stan Maclin of the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center organized the event and called it Peace Rally Part 2, a sort of sequel to one that occurred a week earlier. This rally was also described as a community forum, a chance for conversation and a time to ask questions of some powerful people in Harrisonburg: Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst, Chief of Police Eric English, and Judge Anthony Bailey. 

The mood felt tense to me, humid with the rain and ready passion as people huddled close, but not too close, some with masks and some without. Stan Maclin conducted a beautiful ceremony of silent honor and grief for 8 minutes and 40 seconds, the amount of time that George Floyd’s throat was choked by a white police officer. We could have continued in silence to honor those killed and attacked by police in the week since Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.

Now’s not the time to parse through everything said, and I’m not the person that needs to do that here. Hopefully, there will be times and places to talk about the differences between the intentions of individuals and the impacts of the systems they participate in. Hopefully, there will be times and places to respond to misinformation and sidestepping. Hopefully, there will also be times and places to address the reoccurring tendency of white men like me to dominate public conversations with our unprocessed outrage and subject-changing stories about ourselves. 

Hopefully there will be times and places to talk about all this and more, which brings me to what I’d really like to say now. This event was called a peace rally and a community forum, but I was struck by the architecture of the gathering: how the event was built, where people stood in relation to each other, who moderated the questions and answers. The officials in power, some elected and some hired, stood on the steps of the courthouse where they sometimes work, where lives are forever changed (some of them in the crowd that night), and they looked down on the gathered people who yelled up at them to be heard. Whatever the intention of the organizers, the layout of the event shaped an interaction of us vs. them, shaped emotional responses of defensiveness and bite-backs, which might clarify why intentions and impacts both matter in the way systems and conversations are designed. As the event began, I overheard a police officer next to me telling a firefighter that law enforcement had plans to shut this down “real fast” if needed. The peace rally hadn’t started, the conversation hadn’t even begun, and the community forum was already surrounded in the Friendly City. 

(Editor’s Note: After publication of this perspective, city spokesman Mike Parks contacted The Citizen on behalf of the policeman and firefighter, who say their conversation was about potentially shutting down traffic, not the protest itself.)

If the organizers want a community forum, there are other processes to guide it, other places to host it, other people to moderate and participate. Harrisonburg is home to lots of people with remarkable experience in facilitating conversations, with researchers, activists, organizers, on-the-ground workers, people whose lives have been remade by decisions from those on the steps. However, I’m not necessarily suggesting another community forum. That’s not my place alone and that may not be the right move right now. We might also need People’s Assemblies, deep political education about history and strategic organizing, circles of support and mutual aid. There are many right things to do right now. A community forum set up on a hierarchy of courthouse stairs may not be one of them.

The people in power and the people in protest faced off with each other, the former explaining themselves to the latter. The image was striking: the courthouse stood behind these decision-makers on the steps, unseen from their position but seen by all of us on the square below, a symbolic subtext to everything said and unsaid.

Jonathan McRay is a farmer and facilitator living in Keezletown. With Silver Run Forest Farm, he grows trees for food sovereignty and ecological restoration; with the Cambium Collective, he supports the growth of justice through conflict transformation, restorative justice, and popular education to resist oppression and shape liberation.

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