By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
Editor’s note, 1:40 p.m.: The article was updated to include comments from Broadway Police Chief Randy Collins.
A few hundred people knelt in silence in Heritage Park in Broadway earlier this month. Drops of sweat beaded on their brows amid the muggy early evening air as eight minutes and 46 seconds passed quietly. The silence was meant to honor George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis and whose death has sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the globe. It was interrupted by a counter-protester on the ridge overlooking the park.
“Don’t kneel for criminals! Don’t kneel for criminals!” the man shouted repeatedly. He was one of a few dozen people who came to the park on July 6, not in support of the event, but either as counter-protesters to the Black Lives Matter movement or because they feared the event might become violent in some way. Many of them carried weapons – assault rifles and sidearms. Some were members of local militias.
After the eight minutes and 46 seconds, Raiquan Thomas took the stage. He’s a local singer and rapper who graduated from James Madison University last year and now works as a secretary at Harrisonburg High School. He’s performed at several Black Lives Matter gatherings in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County this summer.
After hearing the man shout through their minutes of silence, Thomas said he tried “combating the negative with the positive” with his music.
The crowd erupted into cheers when the first few notes of music poured through the speakers. Soon, Thomas was beaming.
“Once I got on stage, I felt – there’s just some type of energy that you feel from the crowd,” he said. “And I felt, I got a sense of relief that, finally, everyone’s doing something about this.”
In many ways, the tension that built at these events represented a microcosm of polarized 2020 America. On one side, a younger crowd — many of them high school students or recent graduates and with a variety of skin colors. Many held Black Lives Matter signs. Few, if any, brandished firearms. Masks were on almost every face. On the fringes of the events stood mostly white adults. Many carried guns. Some had “Trump 2020” signs. Others donned “Thin Blue Line” paraphernalia. Few wore masks. But that tension didn’t start, or end, in Broadway.
While none of the local protests have led to physical violence, neither side trusts the other to keep it that way. Black Lives Matters advocates had to walk by their neighbors standing with weapons designed for military use. Both the rally organizers and militia members have reported incidents of harassment and threats following the events. All this has fed mistrust between two groups that, while they live within the forested walls of the same Shenandoah Valley, have very different narratives about who’s right and what to be afraid of.
Protests, marches, and community gatherings for racial justice in downtown Harrisonburg this summer have been peaceful and largely devoid of firearms or counter-protestors.
The events have attracted participation of city leaders – such as Mayor Deanna Reed joining in the silent march on June 1, and Police Chief Eric English and Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst answering questions at a peace rally on June 5. People have been able to ask tough questions of them, such as about the Harrisonburg Police Department’s use of force policies. And residents have directly delivered criticism about subjects like local prosecution trends.
But the atmosphere has been different at other protests, such as the one in Broadway or during a Black Lives Matter gathering in June in Elkton. That event was initially intended as a march until the Elkton Police limited the event to a protest within the Stonewall Memorial Park.
“This is more than a trendy thing to do. This is more than just following another hashtag. This is a shock to a racist system that has oppressed Black lives for centuries,” one of the youth organizers said to a crowd of around 300 in Elkton. “And if righteous justice is what the Lord loves, then it’s a cause worth fighting for … know this, that you don’t have to look hard to see the stains of racism in our communities in America. It’s not like COVID-19. The symptoms are painfully clear and we know all about it.”
On the day of that protest, in the drizzling rain, members of local militias and other unaffiliated locals came, armed, to either watch or disrupt the Black Lives Matter protest. Brian Robbins said he was one of several dozen with the Rockingham County Militia who came to both the Elkton and Broadway protests. He said that news of rioting, looting, and even murder associated with other protests around the country, like the fatal shooting of retired police captain David Dorn in St. Louis, motivated the militia to assemble in Elkton.
“Black Lives Matter, the protests, have been known to descend into chaos and destruction, and we know that there were some forces that were possibly looking to do that sort of thing in Elkton,” Robbins said.
While some protests across the country have turned violent, there have been no such incidents locally, and the internet has lit up with hoaxes and false statements about efforts to incite violence, such as since-debunked conspiracy theories that bricks were placed in areas so people could use them as weapons.
Robbins said they had heard of specific threats on buildings in Elkton, including one Facebook comment about a militia member’s business, which read “It sure would be a shame if their business suffered any kind of repercussions from this.”
He also said the Rockingham County Militia was prepared to defend the Black Lives Matter protestors if police had tried to shut down the gatherings.
“We also would have stepped in and said, ‘No, they have a right to protest and to peaceful assembly, so long as it’s peaceful,’” Robbins said. “I should point out that the militia does not exist to go to war with Black Lives Matter or left-wing protestors … our purpose is to defend people’s rights. And most people’s rights are violated by the government, not by left-wing protestors.”
Robbins said he feared outside agitators from socialist and Black Lives Matter groups across the state had intended to escalate tensions in Elkton. He acknowledged that many gathered in both towns were openly carrying “long rifles” but said members of the Rockingham County Militia mostly had sidearms or concealed weapons.
The gatherings were both organized by Youth for Black Lives, a coalition of high school students from Rockingham County and Harrisonburg. The Shenandoah Socialist Collective reached out to the organizers before Elkton’s event to offer their support, as one local organizer told The Citizen.
This organizer asked to remain anonymous because of harassment the person and their family received following the protests.
In Elkton, some protest supporters did come armed with handguns, which the anonymous organizer said was at the behest of Black youth organizers “because they were being threatened.”
As for fears about the protestors intending harm to Elkton residents or businesses, however, organizer Tsion Ward told The Citizen in a previous interview that their opposition’s outrage was based 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.”
“These folks genuinely believe their town is under threat,” said Jonathan McRay, a supporter of the protests who served as one of a small team of designated “de-escalators” in Broadway by trying to divert the attention of those yelling down at the crowd. In one interaction, for instance, McRay approached the man who was shouting during the minutes of silence, in an attempt to engage him in conversation and stop the disruption.
“I can see these intense emotions they’re expressing as coming from a story they’re telling themselves,” McRay told The Citizen in an email about that interaction. “These emotions are real even if the story isn’t true, and it’s not going to help anyone if I’m just dismissive of those things in the moment.”
Youth for Black Lives’ Facebook posts for the gatherings in Broadway and Elkton explicitly called for peaceful protests.
But Robbins didn’t trust they would stay that way, and said the militia had “people carrying open weapons [who] were tucked away in the sidelines. And we had some people that were doing patrolling that were concealed carrying. And the whole time we were in contact with the police force … we were in coordination with the police the entire time, before and after the events, both” in Elkton and Broadway.
Broadway Police Chief Randy Collins told The Citizen on Monday that they did not have an arrangement with the militia.
“They were here on their own accord. They were not asked to come but they were not turned away either, just because they had the right to be here. We didn’t solicit them for any kind of help and didn’t need any,” Collins said. His department “let them know that they had a right to be there and if things would get bad, that I didn’t know if we would even call them, but I couldn’t turn them away because they had the right to be there.”
Collins said that besides some “talk back and forth,” the event went smoothly, and his officers only intervened once, to turn an intoxicated man away from the park.
The Elkton Police Department did not return The Citizen’s calls.
A June 15 press release from Elkton Police Chief Dave Harris said the police department did not request assistance from local groups for their police officers but added that the town had “coordinated exclusively with sworn police departments to assist us with the planned protest.”
That’s not how Robbins recalled it, though.
“They were very happy to have us there waiting in reserves,” Robbins said. “You’re talking about a small-time police department, and they would not be able to handle things if they got out of hand.”
Other area militia groups rumored to be present in Elkton and Broadway did not respond to The Citizen’s request for interviews sent to their Facebook pages’ administrators.
Regardless of intentions, the presence of armed militia and counter-protestors unnerved many of those gathered for the protest in Broadway.
“Surrounding us were people with trucks and guns,” said Jessani Collier, a 2019 graduate of Broadway High School and one of the event’s organizers. She’s one of five organizers or attendees of the protest who told The Citizen they’ve been harassed since then: by strangers driving slowly past their houses or stopping and taking photos, people yelling “all lives matter” at them as they walk down the street, their car or house being egged, or their mailbox getting bashed in. Collier said these incidents have made her wary, especially when trucks drive by.
“I know that my mom was really worried about backlash. She’s still kind of scared,” Collier said. “There’s obviously some backlash.”
One incident she experienced was more confusing than others. She works at a local Walmart. And during one shift, she had just finished cleaning and organizing an electronics aisle and returned to that section with a cart, when she found “someone had left chicken wings and fried chicken in the aisle and then directly across from that was a red bandana,” Collier said.
“I don’t want to dismiss it, but I really don’t know what to think about it,” she said.
She said the store’s management wouldn’t let her view the security footage in the electronics area to try to make more sense of the situation.
County resident Jennifer Murch, who attended the protest with three of her children, had a Black Lives Matter sign in her yard before it was stolen. The Saturday after the protest, she told The Citizen in an email, a man walked down their road, screamed at her son and lunged at his car as he was leaving to run an errand. The man continued to Murch’s house and yelled at the family before walking away.
In a video shot by Murch’s daughter, you can hear a man’s voice offscreen shouting “all lives matter … it don’t matter what my name is. It does not. You read your Bible. Read your Bible. Stop being a hypocrite. All lives matter, not just frickin’ Black ones.”
Patrick Fritz, one of the adult advisers to the youth organizers, said that since the protest he’s also had strangers driving by his house taking photos, and someone came into his yard one night and cut down his Black Lives Matter flag. He said he finds the trespassing and property damage especially offensive as a veteran who served 15 years in the U.S. Navy.
“I took an oath to defend and support the constitution,” Fritz said. “I promised to protect and defend that right no matter how repugnant I may find it … I am aware and conscientious of the threats against me. I am okay with that. I’m willing to be part of that because I believe in this movement, I believe in what these kids stand for.”
He said some of the behaviors of people who have opposed what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for is “shocking,” but “none of these things are a shock to anybody who’s lived here.”
While at the Broadway protest, as he was helping set up a sound system, he noticed two men standing some distance away, among the trees and in sight of the stage where the high schoolers would be speaking. Fritz said one of them “laughed and smiled and gave me a thumbs up while he was pointing his gun at my chest.”
“He put his life on the line” to block the shooter’s view of the teenage speakers, Collier said.
For some of the protestors, however, this type of harassment is nothing new – and that’s part of the reason they were out there.
“When I go to school, I shouldn’t hear the n-word yelled throughout the halls,” as Broadway High School student TJ Williams said on stage. “And I shouldn’t see teachers turn around. You don’t ignore that from your students. It’s time for change … This happens every day at Broadway.”
Robbins said that members of the Rockingham County Militia were not the perpetrators of any harassment following the protests.
“We would never do that for one, because we’re not trying to beat our town into submission to whatever our political agenda is. Our political agenda is to defend the people’s rights. Being afraid in your own home, innocently, is a violation of your rights,” Robbins said.
Instead, he said, they’ve experienced harassment themselves, including a death threat via a phone call from a blocked number.
Most recently, about 150 people gathered at Court Square in downtown Harrisonburg last Monday in solidarity with the National Strike for Black Lives. The rally was a collaboration between local chapters of Black Lives Matter, Community Solidarity with Poultry Workers, Virginia Organizing, the Poor People’s Campaign of the Shenandoah Valley, and Socialist Resurgence. As with previous events for racial justice in Harrisonburg, no one participating in the rally appeared armed and there was no visible armed militia presence watching.
Robbins said this was simply because it’s a county-focused militia, and most of their members live in the county rather than the city, although he did say they “had some people waiting in the sidelines” at the silent march June 1.
Raiquan Thomas performed again at the Harrisonburg rally. His song “Changed Up” has become a bit of an anthem for the local movement, with many of the participants singing along and dancing on July 20.
Patrick Fritz was also there to speak.
“I’m here to stand and say, with you, in one unified voice, that we are sick and tired and we are not going to take it anymore. If Broadway doesn’t like direct action that our children took, too bad. If Elkton doesn’t like the direct action that our children took, too bad,” Fritz said, to a sea of applause.
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