WINCHESTER — Haley Arnold said it was difficult to watch video of the deadly arrest of George Floyd. It also has been hard to watch some police officers beating and firing rubber bullets at protesters and reporters during nationwide protests over Floyd’s death and police brutality.
“The brutality has gotten out of control to say the least, and it’s just getting worse every day,” said Arnold, a co-organizer of “I Can’t Breathe” Winchester, the group organizing two protests today in Winchester. “It’s a scary thing to think that you’re protected and then it goes the opposite way.”
Arnold, who has friends who are police officers, emphasized the protests are not anti-police. Instead, they are about holding rogue officers accountable.
“When a cop takes off his uniform, he’s just a person,” she said. “Just because they put that uniform on doesn’t mean they can just skip past the reality of murdering people. So that accountability has to be there.”
Arnold said organizers want today’s protests to be peaceful and marchers to be safe. Participants are being urged to wear masks and socially distance due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tables will be set up to provide masks and water to marchers.
The local group was formed shortly after the death of Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Former police Officer Derek Chauvin — seen on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds — and three other former officers have been charged over the death. The group held its first protest on Sunday in downtown Winchester without a city-required permit, but it has obtained a permit for today’s demonstrations.
In a video on Wednesday, Winchester Mayor John David Smith Jr., Winchester Police Department Chief John R. Piper and Thea Thomas, president of NAACP Winchester chapter 7127, condemned Floyd’s death, expressed solidarity with the demonstrators and called for peaceful protests. Smith and Thomas said a community forum on policing is being planned.
“We need to have conversations with our law enforcement departments about policies including if or when deadly force can be used. Plus, what disciplinary actions are taken against officers when misconduct occurs and will the commonwealth attorney’s office prosecute if a George Floyd situation was to occur here,” Thomas said. “Hopefully, these questions and many more will be answered through the future town hall meeting.”
Thomas said in an interview on Thursday that the NAACP is not involved in organizing today’s marches, although some individual members may participate. Thomas said she doesn’t plan to attend due to coronavirus concerns.
Smith said in an email on Thursday that the panel forum with community leaders is tentatively scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. on June 27. The location and specific topics haven’t been decided. Smith said incidents like Floyd’s death happen everywhere.
“Our community is not exempt from this,” Smith said. “Dialogue gets people communicating and understanding the concerns and needs in the community.”
Smith said he’s never been harassed by local police since moving here in 2003, but he has been pulled over for “driving while black” before. He recalled being stopped and handcuffed in Centreville over a faulty rear signal.
Piper said in the video that he and other officers are “disgusted and disturbed” by Floyd’s death and other recent deaths nationwide in which police have been accused of using excessive force.
“Having said that, the men and women of the Winchester Police Department are professionals and they are dedicated to transparency and continuing an open dialogue with members of this community,” Piper said. “I’m committed to being as transparent and progressive as possible.”
Police spokeswoman Lt. Amanda R. Behan said on Thursday that police will ensure that marchers and the public are kept safe during the march. She asked marchers to avoid walking in the street, wear masks and socially distance when possible.
Like many of the high-profile deaths of citizens at the hands of police caught on video in recent years, Floyd was black and Chauvin was white.
Arnold, a 25-year-old Stephens City resident, said as a white woman she can’t know the anger and fear black people feel as a result of racism.
“No struggle in my life could compare to that because it’s an everyday battle,” she said. “I will continue to listen and try to learn. And everyone should.”