RICHMOND, Va. -- Hundreds of people, peacefully protesting racial injustice of black Americans following the death of George Floyd and others, stood in 90 degree weather around the Lee Monument to call for policing reforms and changes to how society views people of color.
A different group joined in the rally, after walking from Willow Lawn, miles away.
“Being a black man, a black individual: it shouldn’t be a curse! It should be nothing but a blessing!” one young man told the crowd.
“I’m going to stand over there. I’m going to stand over there. I’m to stand over there, until I see change. I’m not going anywhere!” another young person said.
During the past few days in Richmond, protesters have said damage to businesses and violence over the weekend is getting way too much attention by too many people and drowning out the real message.
A local community organizer agrees, and said now more than ever is the time to listen to what is being said by black and brown Virginians.
Kalia Harris, a community organizer who has worked in racial justice movements in Virginia for years, said days of protests and portions of unrest have been taxing for organizers across the country.
“I have friends that are organizing friends in Virginia, also Minneapolis, Baltimore, D.C., and Northern Virginia. So you can imagine what my phone looks like every night,” she said. “Folks who have been tear gassed, been arrested. Folks looking for other folks. Yeah, so the labor emotionally is heavy right now.”
The emotions of the current moment should not drown out the real conversations finally taking place, Harris said. Many people of color simply do not feel safe when they encounter police, according to Harris. She said those not directly involved in organizing should examine the societal and political processes that lead America to this point over generations.
“The most important question that we ask is ‘why.’ Why do we need police? Who is benefiting from the systems? When you start to ask those questions, that’s when we get to the roots of the problems that we’re facing. I really encourage folks to look at police brutality and dig into the roots of the systems that are holding that in place,” she said.
Since the protests began, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and other city leaders have committed to forming community review boards for when officers use force against citizens. Stoney has also backed “Marcus Alerts,” which would dispatch a mental health professional with police when called to mental health crisis. The alert is named for Marcus David Peters, who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer while experiencing a mental health crisis.
Protesters in Richmond have adopted both causes in recent days, along with other policing reforms. Harris said many city organizers have been pushing for both policies for several years now.
“These are really easy fixes right, so we don’t have to have the city burning down,” she said.
Seeing large crowds, sometimes in the thousands, marching for racial justice is a welcome sign for Harris. However, she expressed concern that after other high-profile incidents of police officers killing people of color in years past, the energy faded for many supporters.
“We need folks to invest in the long term organizing that exists here. If you want to go out to protests, do it, but also come back the next day and advocate for the changes that we need,” Harris said. “After it’s not cool to hashtag it, you got your protest selfie, we need you to still be posting things and having conversations with people and joining organizations that are doing work in community in Richmond.”
For those who want to get involved but do not feel comfortable joining a protest during the global coronavirus pandemic, Harris suggests connecting with a local organization, volunteering your time, and engaging with scholarship or community activists to learn more about the history racial disparities in American and what they cause now.