By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
What appeared to be a couple hundred people gathered outside the Alexandria Police Department headquarters on Tuesday night, standing in silence with signs held high.
Then, a chant emerged, rising like a wave from the previously silent crowd: “Black lives matter.” Hands clapping in rhythm with the words, the crowd repeated the phrase, the chant gaining volume, the words gathering strength as they echoed off the façade of the police headquarters.
The Tuesday night vigil, organized by Showing Up for Social Justice’s Northern Virginia chapter, comes amid nationwide protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black security guard who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Floyd told all four officers involved in his arrest that he could not breathe and begged with them, saying “please” and “mama,” according to a statement of probable cause released by the prosecutors in the case.
The now former officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged with third degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on May 29 after a video of the incident came out. Chauvin’s charge was upgraded to second degree murder and the three other officers present at the scene, Thomas Lane, Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, were charged with aiding and abetting murder on Wednesday.
Since then, a wave of both peaceful and violent protests has spread across the country, decrying Floyd’s death, and the deaths of many other unarmed blacks at the hands of police.
The vigil on Tuesday was held to honor not only George Floyd but Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, two other African Americans who have been killed recently. Leaders of SURJ, which is dedicated to organizing white people to engage and fight the root causes of racism, said that the peaceful demonstration aimed to show that those responsible for the murders of these individuals represent the systemic conditions of racist policing across the country, including in Northern Virginia.
“Police in our communities, right here in Northern Virginia, regularly profile, stop, harass, arrest, abuse, and otherwise harm black people in disproportionate numbers,” Cat Clark, an organizer for SURJ, said in an email. “Local governments have failed to hold police accountable for systemic racism and violence in our communities. White people need to be seen opposing police violence; we need to follow the lead of black organizers for racial justice and amplify their voices. Black lives matter.”
The #EndWhiteSilence vigil was the first such event in Alexandria, but it is not the last. Another vigil is set for Thursday night at 7 p.m. in the parking lot of the Charles Houston Recreation Center. The event, organized by two residents, is also designed to be peaceful and to “[express that] anger through violence is not welcome,” according to the Facebook event page.
Like the rest of the country, the Alexandria community has been hit hard by Floyd’s death, as evidenced by cries for social justice that have echoed across social media and other platforms.
“I’m angry as hell, to be honest with you, and I’m afraid,” the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley of Alfred Street Baptist Church said.
Floyd’s death shook Wesley, who organized a peaceful march after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, he said.
The reverend’s next sermon – titled “I’m Mad as Hell” – reflects those feelings and the challenges that have come with trying to serve as a spiritual leader in his community while feeling and grieving Floyd’s death as a black man.
“There’s a lot of weight on me because people look to me to be this God voice in the midst of all this, and sometimes it’s hard for me to find the voice of God when I’m just stuck in black man anger and fear,” Wesley said.
With protesters beginning to organize in Alexandria, city leaders have expressed support for those who wish to demonstrate peacefully.
“Our goal is to allow first amendment protests if they want to do that, make sure that they’re done safety and to protect them. That’s our job,” APD Chief Michael Brown said.
“People need to be able to address their grievances to the government and the way that has always happened in this country is through peaceful protest,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said. “I stand with the protestors and they’re right to assemble and protest what they see.”
Wesley doesn’t condone the violence of both protesters and police officers at protests across the country, but said he understands where the protesters’ anger is coming from.
“This is the language America taught its own people. Malcolm X got in a lot of trouble saying this, but he was on to something: Chickens do come home to roost,” Wesley said. “America is reaping the violence it has sown in communities of color and poor and impoverished countries across the world, and I hope she’s listening.”
After Floyd’s death, APD officers condemned Chauvin’s actions.
“Last week, I too watched a video that shocked me in many ways. Personally and professionally, I was appalled at what I saw. I witnessed a homicide at the hands of a cop, and the victim of that homicide was Mr. George Floyd,” Brown wrote in an open letter to the community on Monday.
“Am I upset? I’m angry. I want to burn some stuff too. … I want to burn something too, but I know it’s not right,” Officer Bennie Evans, a 26-year veteran of the APD, said. “ … I’m just angry enough to say I’m going to go into work and make a change. It hurt me to put this uniform on. Because I’m a black man way before I’m a cop.”
As unfortunate as Floyd’s death is, local leaders hope that this is an opportunity to re-evaluate city policies around policing and equity.
“We have to recognize and acknowledge that within our institutions, within our society there is systemic racism,” Canek Aguirre said. “It’s deeply embedded and deeply rooted. This goes to planning and zoning codes. It goes to the ways highways were built and where they were built. Everything is connected back to this in one way or another.”
The city held the first in a series of virtual town halls on Tuesday night to honor Floyd and discuss how systemic racism impacts the city.
The APD conducts an annual review of the 21st Century Policing initiative that was implemented in 2015 after the protests that occurred in the wake of Brown’s death. Specific programs involved in the policy include community-oriented policing and the collection and analysis of demographic data on all stops and detentions.
Data collection is one tool the city can use to assess policing issues, Aguirre, who has promoted increased data transparency in the APD since 2016 when he helped create a data transparency coalition, said. However, pushing policies like this have proved a challenge in a city where an event like Floyd’s death hasn’t occurred in recent years.
“People were saying, ‘We don’t have this problem. Why do it?’” Aguirre said. “But we can’t identify problems if we don’t have the information to identify them.”
“For all of us, current council members and past, it’s tough for us to say, ‘Hey, things aren’t going bad with us right now, so let’s look at how we do law enforcement,’” Councilor John Chapman said. “So, I think [a situation] like right now is definitely an opportunity to talk about that, challenge our perspectives on that.”
Alexandria is known for its strong nonprofit and volunteer-driven culture, but there’s always room for improvement, Chapman said.
“Regardless of the socio-economic or racial background of folks across the street or next door, we still care about that person. … But I think we have to have a greater conversation about how that care works, how it’s shown, what are the areas that we’re still missing,” Chapman said.
The APD provides access to its information on citizen complaints and cases involving use of force to both residents and the Human Rights Commission, Brown said.
According to the 2019 review, the only policy the APD is not currently addressing is APD officers wearing body cameras.
However, Aguirre said the city’s priority should be on changing policy and training and hiring practices.
“Training is something that’s very important, and this is something I’m very proud of the police department on: the impressive bias training that all officers are going through,” Aguirre said. “Not everyone has gone through de-escalation training, but there are some officers that have been specifically trained in that.”
If incidents do occur, local officials want to ensure that misconduct – and outright violent misconduct – remain a part of an officer’s record so they can’t get rehired a few jurisdictions away.
“In the teaching profession, you’re not having a teacher that has a whole lot of misconduct allowed to work and stay in a school system. That’s usually frowned upon,” Chapman said. “So how do we have that same type of culture with law enforcement so you don’t have people that are racking up complaints – and valid complaints – and remain in a neighborhood or a city where something like that could happen.”
For cases involving deadly force, Porter and Brown signed a memorandum of understanding that requires Virginia State Police to conduct investigations, rather than the APD itself.
The city is already responding to the conversation that is swirling around its own complicated history with race.
The controversial Appomattox statue, which sat at the intersection of Prince and Washington streets and was erected in 1889 to honor the city’s fallen Confederate soldiers, was partially removed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy on Tuesday. After years of conversation, the statue was due to be removed in July, but the UDC decided to accelerate the project due to the protests that have resulted in other Confederate-era statues in the South being defaced.
For residents, it can be hard to find a way forward. How can an individual bring about change?
Wesley has been advocating for community review boards to evaluate police processes and protocols but has put even more emphasis on the power of the vote. Despite his anger and fear, Wesley said he still has faith in what people can do to initiate change.
“I continue to believe in the possibilities of America. Regardless of the injustices we see, the leadership that I believe is immoral and incompetent, I believe in the power of the people to change this nation,” Wesley said.
(Read more: George Floyd vigils, town hall planned in Alexandria)