WINCHESTER — Seventeen-year-old Rebekah Matthews was among the hundreds of people who came to downtown Winchester on Sunday evening to protest the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week.
The rising senior at Handley High School said she no longer feels safe as a young black woman after watching the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on the neck of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man. Chauvin, who reportedly ignored Floyd's pleas of "I can't breathe," has been charged with murder.
Rebekah said she's now worried that if she and her family get pulled over in their vehicle by police, something like that could happen to them.
But attending Sunday's protest was a positive experience for her. People of all races participated, many of them chanting "I can't breathe," "George Floyd" and "Black Lives Matter" as they marched along downtown streets.
"It makes me feel stronger, and actually seeing people out here protesting, it just helps mentally," Rebekah said.
The protest, which was organized on social media, was largely peaceful, though there were some tense moments. No protesters were arrested, but 32-year-old Gregory Scott Milburn, of Winchester, was charged with public intoxication. According to Winchester Police Department spokeswoman Lt. Amanda Behan, officers observed Milburn approach the protestors in an "aggressive manner" at 8:25 p.m. in the Loudoun Street Mall area.
Although protest organizers did not obtain a permit from the city, there are stipulations for spontaneous protests in City Code, so Winchester Police Chief John E. Piper said he decided to allow the event to proceed.
Police had a presence at the protest, but it was low profile.
"Until circumstances dictate that we need to change our posture, we're here to make sure that the folks who are expressing their First Amendment rights are safe, that our businesses are safe, and that our patrons down here on the walking mall are safe," Piper told The Star.
Winchester Sheriff Les Taylor was among local law enforcement officers monitoring the protest. He said he understood why they were protesting and called what happened to Floyd "a tragedy, a disgusting one at that, so they're mad and I understand. I'm mad as well."
Protesters gathered at 6:30 p.m. on the Loudoun Street Mall in front of the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum, where Floyd's photo, flowers, candles and signs had been placed at the foot of a statue of a commemorating Confederate soldiers in Frederick County and Winchester who "faithfully served the South" during the Civil War.
The group then walked to the south end of the mall, where several people spoke before the marching continued.
Samuel Tanner, 45, of Winchester, shouted to the crowd how tired he was as a black man hearing about instances of police brutality.
"I'm tired. I can't breathe. My ancestors can't breathe," Tanner said. "Take the knees off our throats. We don't want to fight. We just want justice."
As people spoke, Nate Tabourn, 23, of Winchester, stood holding a sign that said "Black Lives Matter" as tears covered his cheeks. He was with his fiancée Madison Lessman, 24, also of Winchester.
"I'm feeling very overwhelmed with emotion," Tabourn said.
Tabourn, who is biracial, said he feels sorrow for black lives lost to institutional violence and confusion over people who don't support protesters seeking justice.
Lessman said it's important as a white person to show up and support people of color to help make their voices heard.
"I believe that it's our duty to protect the people that live in our communities, to protect the people we work with, to protect the people that we serve, and part of that is the African American community, and they are not being protected right now," she said.
As an interracial couple living in Winchester, Lessman and Tabourn said they have at times gotten "strange looks" when they are together in public.
"At times it's uncomfortable, definitely, and you don't know what people are thinking, but sometimes the look on their faces says it all," Lessman said.
Erin Diggs, 34, of Stephens City, was at the protest waving a sign at passing cars that said, "Prayers for George Floyd's family. Protest in Peace."
Diggs, who is biracial, said Sunday night's protest was incredibly emotional for her, because she said she knows of instances of police brutality.
"I feel grateful to be in a city where we can practice protesting in peace. I am feeling a great emotion for George Floyd's family that I can't describe," Diggs told The Star.
Diggs, who has lived in the Winchester area her whole life, said she has consistently experienced subtle racism. But she felt Sunday's protest was more about demanding change in the justice system and how it treats people.
"We need to have good judgement. Our police need to have good judgement. All of our officials need to have good judgement," she said.
Kiah McFarlane, 18, who just graduated from Handley High School, held a sign that said, "I can't breathe. My color isn't a weapon."
"Everybody's lives matter, but for some reason we're treated differently, and I don't think it's right at all," she said.
At one point, the protestors stopped at the Piccadilly Street roundabout in front of the Timbrook Public Safety Center, where the Winchester Police Department is headquartered. Police blocked off the street to vehicle traffic and encouraged protesters to stay on the sidewalk.
Sometime after 8 p.m., the crowd dispersed, following calls from the police and others to do so.
Before he left, Travis Ward, 25, of Winchester, told the police and others present that he was upset by how police treat him and people on the city's North End, which has a large minority population. He reminded the crowd about the 2016 death of his friend D'Londre Minifield. Minifield's family believes the 20-year-old was shot and killed by Winchester police officers during a foot pursuit, while a state police investigation said Minifield shot himself. Minifield was black.
Ward, who is black, told the officers he's lived in Winchester neighborhoods where he has been taunted by police.
"I've been dealing with the same police for years, and I'm fed up bro," Ward told The Star afterward. "I feel glad that the community came together and spoke, and we got to just to keep continuing to go on from there and really just stick together and continue to rise."