By Calvin Pynn, contributor
After a closed-session discussion, the Elkton Town Council ultimately voted 5-1 Monday night to approve a permit that will allow a high school student-led Black Lives Matter protest on Wednesday. Plans for the event had touched off a social media-fueled controversy after a Facebook post calling for armed counter-protesters went viral over the past several days.
“There is definitely a concern there, and we are taking all necessary precautions,” said Tsion Ward, a Spotswood High School senior who helped organize the event. “We’ve been talking with the police department, and they’ve been helping us out and doing all they can.”
Ward said she and her fellow organizers from several county high schools and Harrisonburg have prepared for a worst-case scenario.
In addition to cooperating with local police, she said community members trained in de-escalation will be present at the protest and have even set up a jail bond line.
“If something got chaotic, or there was tear gas, or there were counter-protesters reacting violently, we’ve been preparing for what we would do,” Ward said.
Students have been planning the event for several weeks, as demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism have taken place across the country – including multiple events in Harrisonburg – in the wake of George Floyd being killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Ward said these events are just as important in small towns as in bigger cities.
“These rural areas are no exception to the racist tendencies and misconduct with police departments,” she said. “We feel that we need to continue to stand up especially in the smaller areas to show them we’re not going to let it slide just because it’s a small town or people just don’t know better.”
Facebook post raises concerns
Concerns over escalation have been especially high since a June 11 Facebook post from user named Jason Ashley McDaniel called for armed civilians to show up to the protest and to protect the World War II memorial in Stonewall Memorial Park. As of Monday, the post has garnered hundreds of supportive reactions and comments, and has been shared dozens of times. Some comments suggested that outside groups like the Augusta County Militia attend to support a counter-protest.
The author of the June 11 post later edited it to clarify that they were unaware the protest was organized by local high school students.
“I’m all for our youth and their march. I’d be right along side them,” the Facebook user wrote. “We however will not tolerate any outside organizations preparing to take advantage of this to act out on terrorism.”
Ward said she believes the outrage that the post stirred was rooted in misinformation.
“I believe they were quick to jump to conclusions that we were trying to protest that specific monument, and kind of just mess up the whole town of Elkton,” Ward said. “That kind of fueled all of the other conservative Elkton community members, and militias and alt-right groups and whatever to think that there’s some sort of concern for the safety of Elkton.”
To Ward’s knowledge, none of the organizers have received any direct threats.
“Still, I think there will be groups there who won’t be happy with what we’re doing,” she said.
A message seeking comment from the user of the Jason Ashley McDaniel Facebook profile was not returned.
The march was originally planned to start in Stonewall Memorial Park, and continue for 10 to 15 minutes through surrounding neighborhoods before circling back around into the park. Ward said chants have been planned, although the protest could be silent depending on safety concerns.
However, a statement from Elkton Police Chief David Harris on Monday afternoon said there would no longer be a march and that the protest would be limited to the park. That statement also dispelled rumors that the police department had sought help from local groups to help keep order during the protest.
While Harris told The Citizen in an interview that town police will be at the protest with help from neighboring police department, he said he could not confirm how many officers would be on duty at the protest or which nearby departments would be coming in for help. He also did not confirm if town police would have riot gear and tear gas on hand at the protest.
“Basically, my police department is going to do everything in our power to protect our town and the citizens of our town, as well as the protesters from the event,” Harris said.
After closed session and some confusion, town council votes to approve permit for event
At their Monday night meeting, streamed for the public on Zoom, members of the Elkton Town Council seemed hesitant to approve a permit for the event because of concerns that it may become unsafe.
“Protests like this are a first for a lot of us,” Town Manager Greg Lunsford said during the meeting. “If Elkton becomes known as ‘that town,’ there’s a high risk of more of those guys coming here.”
During the meeting, the council amended its agenda to include closed session discussion of the matter, and a town staff member indicated in the public chat forum that a public vote on the permit application would not be held during the meeting. Reporters from The Citizen and the Daily News-Record raised questions about basis for entering closed session under the Virginia law governing closed sessions and sought clarification on why a public vote would not be held.
The council eventually returned to open session and voted to approve the permit.
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