WINCHESTER — Underneath Winchester’s statue honoring local Confederate soldiers is a shrine to George Floyd, the black man whose death on May 25 under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis sparked worldwide protests against police brutality.
“This monument represents racism and hate for others,” said a sign at the Civil War statue on Friday. “Stop killing black people. Destroy white supremacy,” said other signs.
America’s history of enslaving black people, to its 20th century segregation laws, to modern-day racial profiling was not lost on speakers at Friday’s protests in downtown Winchester against police brutality. A silent protest was held in the morning, and a second protest was held in the evening. Both were peaceful.
“The system is not broken. This is a system that was put in by design to keep black people down,” Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, told some 500 protesters outside the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum on Friday evening. “This is America’s legacy with black Americans and we need to change it now.”
Wexton praised Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision last week to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, and she promised to work with other congressional Democrats on police reform. She cited a proposed federal ban on the the use of choke holds by police, something Winchester police are not trained to use.
“We’re not going to stop until we see real levels of criminal justice reform at all levels of government,” Wexton said. “I want you guys to hold me accountable. I want you to hold every single elected official accountable.”
Several protesters said in interviews that they supported establishing civilian review boards to hold police accountable, prosecution of rogue cops under federal hate crime laws and tying federal funding of local police departments to their level of accountability. Winchester Mayor John David Smith Jr. invited protesters to participate in a community discussion on preventing police brutality on June 27.
“If we don’t have the conversation, then this is going to happen again and again,” Smith said. “It’s going to happen to somebody very close to you. Not somebody that you’ll see on TV, but it’s going to happen to you, or a family member. Somebody it shouldn’t happen to.”
The crowd was racially diverse and included many people in their 20s and 30s. There were no arrests at the rally or at a silent march involving about 500 people earlier in the day, according to Winchester Police Chief John E. Piper. He said about 20 officers provided security at the evening march. About a dozen deputies from the Winchester Sheriff’s Office as well as several deputies from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and Virginia State Police troopers assisted Winchester police. At the evening protest, Piper was invited to take part in a brief chant, which he did. Several other officers from various law enforcement departments were later invited to “take a knee” with the crowd, which they did.
The names of black people killed by police nationwide under questionable circumstances were chanted by the crowd during the four-hour evening demonstration. They included Breonna Taylor, shot by Louisville, Kentucky, police on March 13 when they smashed down her door in the middle of the night while executing a “no-knock” search warrant for drugs.
They chanted for Philando Castile, a driver shot in 2016 by a Minnesota police officer after reaching for his driver’s license and telling the officer that he had a concealed pistol permit. And Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy with a BB gun in his waistband who was shot by a Cleveland, Ohio, police officer before being given a chance to raise his hands.
Also named was D’Londre Minifield, a 20-year-old black man who died after running from Winchester police in 2016. A state police investigation found Minfield shot himself, but three witnesses dispute the police account, and Minifield’s family has sued the city contending an officer shot Minifeld and covered it up.
“It’s not always videotaped. It happens every day,” Minifield’s mother, Jacqueline Y. Minifield, said of police brutality. “Everybody stay angry. Because that’s the only way anything’s going to change.”
“Defund the Police, No Lives Matter Until Black Lives Matter” and “White Silence = White Violence” were among the signs carried by protesters on a rainy Friday evening. The idea that white people are complicit in racism and police brutality by refusing to condemn it or needing to see video to believe it was advanced by activist and Republican Winchester mayoral candidate Danielle Bostick. She said denying racism is like denying gravity.
“I can’t see it. Can you? But are you floating away? No. That is the reality of racism in the United States for the last 400 years and everybody here has an obligation to acknowledge it and fight it every day,” she told the crowd. “If you can cross the street and people don’t grab their purses, then you need to be there for people whose bodies are viewed as a threat.”
The rallies were organized by “I Can’t Breathe” Winchester, a Facebook group formed after Floyd’s death. Group co-organizer Terrance Wilson said in an interview that he was “disgusted” by video of Floyd’s death and scenes of police around the country beating protesters during nationwide protests over the killing.
But Wilson said he was gratified by the turnout at Friday’s protests and one on May 31. He called for individual and collective action. “I would just suggest that the community take a hard look at what’s going on because everyone can do something,” Wilson said.