Chesterfield Observer: More than 1,000 march in Chesterfield to protest police brutality, voice support for Black Lives Matter

CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER, RICH GRISET and JIM MCCONNELL

Having just had his car searched and handcuffs removed from his wrists, Tavorise Marks wanted to know why he’d been stopped by police in the first place.

As a young man, Marks had just received his first paycheck from joining the Army after college, and celebrated by purchasing a Cadillac DeVille. Desiring to show off his new car to his great-grandmother, he’d driven to Richmond from Norfolk, where he then lived. After the visit, Marks and his cousin were pulled over on Jefferson Davis Highway by police, told to exit the vehicle, handcuffed and placed on the ground, even though they were complying. All the while, Marks kept asking why he’d been stopped.

Upon being let go, he finally got his answer from the officer. “He said the windows were tinted too dark,” Marks recalled last Wednesday while addressing a diverse group of more than 1,000 people in Chesterfield protesting the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25.

Standing at a podium on the front steps of the county courthouse, Marks, a member of the Chesterfield NAACP leadership and recent Democratic Party candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates’ 62nd District, said the episode was an example of racial disparities that black people face at the hands of law enforcement.

Nine days after Floyd was killed when white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes – including almost three minutes after Floyd became unresponsive – Chesterfield held its own rally to protest Floyd’s death and other civil rights issues. Beginning outside the Chesterfield County Police Department at 6 p.m., the peaceful protesters took up two lanes of Iron Bridge Road and were escorted by two police cruisers during their march to the front steps of the county courthouse more than a mile away.

Since Floyd’s death on May 25, protests have swept across hundreds of American cities, leading to violent confrontations with police and, at times, riots: In Richmond, storefronts were smashed, Confederate statues graffitied, and cars, buildings and one GRTC bus lit on fire. In contrast, Chesterfield’s protest Wednesday night was a more staid affair. Not only did many speak of law enforcement as allies, but members of the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office and the Chesterfield County Police Department handed out bottles of water to protesters. Still, the event was one of the largest political protests in the county in recent memory.

“We will march in unity, we will march together, and together we will make a difference in Chesterfield County,” said Shedrick McCall, an associate professor of psychology at Virginia State University and former School Board candidate, before the march left the front of the police station.

Heading northwest along Iron Bridge Road, Midlothian resident Jennifer Brown said the demonstration was her first as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Brown, who is black, said she was spurred to action by the thought of what could happen to her 16-year-old son, Jayden, in a similar situation as Floyd. She said her son experienced an incident of racial profiling in the county last year when police stopped him as he walked from Uptown Alley to the Regal Commonwealth movie theater with his friends in the middle of the afternoon.

“We need to be heard,” said the 42-year-old, holding a sign that read “My Son Matters/I Will Not Be Silenced.” “We need justice. This has to stop happening. When George Floyd said ‘momma’ [in the video recording of his death], that really, really hurt me, because that could be my son one day if something doesn’t change.”

Jon Bennett, an assistant pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church who led a prayer for the protesters, hopes the march will lead to “awareness, policy changes, just a coming together, a unity.”

“It’s a precious thing to see, people of all ages, races, persuasions,” said Bennett, 35, who lives off of Iron Bridge Road. “We may have differences on other things, but there’s one thing that we do not disagree on, and that is that black lives do matter.”

Wednesday’s march was the largest of four protests in Chesterfield last week, as political unrest over Floyd’s death spilled over from the city into the suburbs. On Monday, there were marches in the Magnolia Green community and in Brandermill; another group marched down Midlothian Turnpike Friday to the police station on North Providence Road.

The Iron Bridge Road protest drew many elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, Del. Carrie Coyner, Sheriff Karl Leonard and county Commissioner of the Revenue Jenefer Hughes. Superintendent Merv Daugherty and School Board members Kathryn Haines and Dot Heffron also were in attendance.

Spanberger said the march was a show of community solidarity.

“It was a symbolic event in how we marched from the police station to the courthouse; it was powerful in the way that there were people of all backgrounds and ages marching together,” said Spanberger, a Democrat who represents Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. “This is what democracy looks like, and I hope it continues.”

Coyner, a former Chesterfield County School Board member who was elected to represent District 62 in the Virginia House of Delegates last fall, said there is much to do in confronting racism and inequality – including changes in school funding and application of local land-use policies that have led to segregated schools and concentrated poverty in Chesterfield.

“Obviously, reforms are needed in policing. It’s not every police officer, but systems need to be improved so we don’t have police [adversely] impacting black and brown communities the way they have,” said Coyner, a Republican. “Ending racism is not a black or white issue. It’s not a left or right issue. It’s an everybody issue. We all have a part to play. [The march] highlighted the need for unity and for all of us to do our part to bring about change.”

Chesterfield Police Chief Col. Jeffrey Katz and Sheriff Karl Leonard held a press conference 15 minutes before the start of the march. Katz noted the video of Floyd’s death left him and every police officer he knew “deeply disturbed,” and said he had nothing but “complete contempt” for what happened. He said that he wants “to convey that we’re willing to listen and we truly care.”

None of the members of the Board of Supervisors attended the march. Asked about it later last week, Leslie Haley, the board’s chairwoman, said she couldn’t speak on behalf of the other board members, but that she “wasn’t invited or sent notice of Wednesday’s march. I only learned of it from the invite to our police chief and county administrator.”

Haley and fellow supervisors Chris Winslow (Clover Hill) and Jim Ingle (Bermuda) did attend Katz and Leonard’s press conference prior to the march, however.

The county later issued the following statement on behalf of the Board of Supervisors: “We stand with our community, region and nation in mourning the unnecessary loss of George Floyd. In the wake of that loss, we recognize that our community’s resolve to protest in peace is a sign of great strength in the midst of immense sadness and anger that in other places has erupted into violence, destruction, and additional loss of life. We also recognize the strides our county law enforcement professionals and community partners have made over many years of working together to grow a dialogue that works toward building community collaboration and trust, and influences actions aimed at toppling injustice.”

According to former Chesterfield planning commissioner Michael Jackson, who organized the event with Marks and McCall, it was meant to show solidarity with Floyd’s family, strengthen the black community’s partnership with law enforcement and advocate for specific policy changes.

Jackson, Marks and McCall met last Friday afternoon with Katz and County Administrator Joe Casey. Jackson later told the Observer that the meeting was “productive” and said the trio “found partners in the effort for equal justice. And that is truly a good thing for Chesterfield County.

“I believe there was a consensus that this was the beginning of something and not the end,” he added. “Additional meetings will take place in the days, weeks and months ahead.” Jackson reached out to McCall and Marks last Monday to organize the protest after his daughter asked what they were going to do in response to Floyd’s death.

“I just didn’t feel like I could send her to a march in the evening,” he said. “I wanted to do something, and this is what has come out of it.”

For Jackson, the protests taking place across the country have some personal symmetry.

“I was a junior in high school when the Rodney King riots started,” he added. “My son is a junior in high school this year. These episodic cycles due to racial injustice in our country need to be addressed, and that is the hard work that has to take place after the marches end.”

After reaching the courthouse complex, Marks took to the podium to discuss racial inequities in the law, hiring practices and educational opportunities. He said modern policing has some of its roots in slave patrols and night watches that were tasked with controlling enslaved black people.

“The laws were never really created to see black people as equal,” Marks said.

After lauding efforts by Superintendent Merv Daugherty and the School Board to address equity issues – such as its recent decision to expand center-based gifted programming – Marks urged white people to confront racism when they come across it.

“We’re not trying to start a race war,” he said. “We’re trying to end one.”

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