Across the country, protests against the murder of George Floyd have called for systemic changes to the way policing is handled in America. This includes Greenbrier County; locals filled downtown Lewisburg on Thursday, June 4, to add their voices to the nation’s call for action.
“Black Lives Matter,” said local Christopher Winston. “[This is a] movement that does not discredit the idea that all lives matter, but to focus on the lives that have been number two for far too long. … Understand this is far beyond white and black, but a stand on equality, justice within our American system, racism, and police brutality. Hear me clearly – a knee to the neck, a swift kick to the face, and, most importantly, the murdering of any human being of any race by law enforcement is, in fact, police brutality.”
Thursday’s protesters took a knee for nine minutes, the amount of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck before he died. Although at first the kneelers were silent, a shout of “say his name” began a chorus of voices calling out “George Floyd” and “I can’t breathe,” phrases said both by Floyd and Eric Garner before they died.
Garner was killed in 2014 by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo during an arrest and is one of many of the incidents that led to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, despite the powerful show of support from the community, not all in Greenbrier County stand with the protesters. Several speakers spoke of their local experiences with racism and its effects.
“There are so many stories and anecdotes I could tell. It’s small town West Virginia,” said Brianna Scott. “I know I could ask a number of questions and every black body here would be able to raise their hand. I know that black bodies here, in peaceful Lewisburg, feel afraid when police come up to our car. We still fear for our lives. We still have these injustices and just because you’re not hearing about them doesn’t mean they aren’t here.”
Videos of people driving by, holding up their middle finger, snickering, and yelling at the Greenbrier County protest have surfaced on various social media. In addition, once the crowd thinned and protesters began to go home, several individuals who stayed behind were met with pushback from drivers-by.
“It was kind of a weird experience – I still felt good standing out there that last hour with my friends,” said Dexter Johnson, a local who arrived shortly after the protest ended once he was off work. “I felt like we were in the nitty gritty part. It wasn’t as comfortable. I was nervous. I was definitely nervous, but I knew I was alright because I was there with people I really love and care about that aren’t the same color as me. I knew they had my back.”
Johnson and a handful of others remained until 9 p.m., seeing a number of negative responses from drivers, including stares, shouting, and more.
“One of them was mooning us,” Johnson said.
Johnson also noted he supported local police, saying he had grown up with many local officers, and called for community unity and awareness. This message was affirmed both by many protesters and Lewisburg Mayor Beverly White. The following week, White released a statement on Floyd’s death, her own response, and what the city’s plans for the future entail. To read her open letter to the city, see the Friday, June 12, edition of the Mountain Messenger.
Unity, many speakers explained, is the only way to keep people safe and moving forward.
“I would be doing an injustice to the blood that runs through my veins if I did not speak on part of the white and black parts in me that know injustice,” explained Haley Burns. “I stand here grateful to all of you who have gathered.
… When I was nine years old sitting on the back of a bus, a small, white boy called me a n*****. Five white people stood to my back and before they could even say anything, I popped him. I’m not going to lie about it. I was given a full day suspension while he was given nothing. But what happened? Five white people rose to my occasion, therefore I will always believe in white people, the same blood running in my veins. When I was 14 years old walking down the halls of Greenbrier East High School, … I was holding hands with my boyfriend, who is a white person, [and he was called] a n*****-lover. Seven people turned around, ready to defend me at any given moment. I see you here. I see your passion. Thank you for being here.”
The threat of COVID-19 continued to loam even over the local protest – WVSOM President Jim Nemitz and several speakers emphasized the need for physical distance as they express social solidarity. As the protest began, the crowd extended their arms to further space everyone out.
“As much as I wanted to be here, speaking and being heard and … listening to others, I was afraid. I was afraid that the virus was still a very real threat, especially to our black bodies,” said local Brianna Scott. “I wanted to make sure that was the utmost importance [in] coming together tonight, a big priority. Not that the virus doesn’t attack white bodies, but the virus has statistically attacked black bodies and killed black lives and looted black lives recently within this pandemic. … protect yourself, because we can’t fight for us if we’re not here anymore.”
The event highlighted a number of speakers, organizers, and Greenbrier County residents, including Larry Baxter and Scott Miller, members of Race Matters In Education, 3rd Congressional District candidate Lacy Watson, Greenbrier County locals Christopher Winston, Haley Burns, and Brianna Scott, Old Stone Presbyterian Church pastor Anna Straight, Shuck Memorial Baptist Church pastor Jonathan Turner, St. Thomas Episcopal Church pastor Betsy Walker, West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Boardmember Naomi Cohen, WVSOM President James Nemitz, and more. Cohen, as part of the ACLU, spoke on how the nation got to this point.
“Commit this to your memory and don’t ever forget,” said Cohen. “This is how we got here today. We have to face, honestly, that our society has constructed an elaborate system of legal, economic, and social codes that perpetuate systemic racism. It’s rooted in the collective barbarism of our history of genocide, slavery, and apartheid. People, especially white people, benefit from this system.
Cohen listed several examples to illustrate the problems within the system, including private prisons.
“Corporate power exploits systemic racism for profit,” Cohen said. “For example, the private prison industry monetizes the subjugation and control of black and brown bodies. In fact, it bestows huge financial rewards to such corporations and their executives, but it’s wider than that. Our retirement funds, our municipal budgets, are often dependent on profits rooted in systemically racialized imprisonment. In much of our everyday lives, the bitter fruit of mass incarceration even shows up as part of the supply chain that gives us our food, our clothing, and our transportation.”
Although the protest brought many locals out, several speakers called for people not to just go home and pat themselves on the back for coming to the rally. To get involved locally and find out what an individual person can do to help, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the history of racism, slavery, the progress made, and the work to be done in Greenbrier County, go to www.greenbrierhistorical.org/exhibits to see the Greenbrier County Historical Society’s exhibit, called “Echoes of Slavery In Greenbrier County.” Footage of the protest can also be seen on the Facebook page “Race Matters in WV.”