FRONT ROYAL – Curious onlookers stood on rooftops and front porches Friday evening as hundreds of men, women and children walked through Front Royal protesting the most recent events of police brutality roiling the country.
A combination of events, the Front Royal Unites rally brought hundreds of people together, starting at Bing Crosby Stadium, to walk, chant, speak and pray for an end to the treatment of black and brown people as less than others. The event was one of hundreds around the country in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died after a police officer left his knee on Floyd’s neck, pinning him to the ground, for nearly nine minutes.
Justin Thorne, one of the event organizers, told the bustling crowd he was “sick and tired,” of coming out and protesting events like this and said, “racism was not going to be tolerated anymore.”
On the organizing side were dozens of police officers. Khale Magalis, the Front Royal Police Department chief, and Mark Butler, the Warren County Sheriff, both worked with organizers to bring a peaceful police presence to walk with protesters. Butler led the march in a car and police were scattered throughout the crowd, marching on the sides and keeping an eye out for any possible disruption.
Thorne said in his speech that protesters “know all cops aren’t bad,” receiving raucous applause from the crowd. But, he continued, “we don’t know all cops.” This event was a message that people want cops who break the law to be punished.
Following the march, the crowd piled inside Bing Crosby Stadium to hear from more speakers. Throughout the event, social distancing standards were winked at but hardly enforced. On the way into the stadium, organizers handed out masks and offered hand sanitizer while saying people should try to socially distance. Inside, people spread out more than while marching but didn’t keep the required 6-foot distance.
The rally in Front Royal and others represented a conflict for public health officials and law enforcement everywhere. Amid a pandemic, a rally poses as a prime breeding ground for spreading a virus. Most marchers wore face masks but some didn’t. As they walked through town, shoulder to shoulder, they chanted loud and proud, potentially spreading COVID-19.
John Bell, the commonwealth’s attorney for Warren County, said earlier in the week that police, who helped organize and were participating, had no intentions of citing anyone for breaking the rules about gatherings of more than 50 people and said their First Amendment rights trumped the rules laid out in Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order.
Speakers inside the stadium electrified the crowd. March organizers, pastors and long-time community activists all took their place roughly 20 feet behind home plate at a podium to address the crowd.
Bryon Johnson, a local pastor and author, said he "really didn’t want to be there." The frustration of marching for 50 plus years and seeing the need to keep marching was discouraging.
Front Royal Town Councilwoman Letasha Thompson told the crowd that finding a solution to racism was going to require everyone to get uncomfortable. People don’t like to talk about racism, she said, because it's awkward. To fight that, people need to be unafraid to ask questions and offered herself as a resource for anyone concerned about talking to a friend.
Friday’s event remained peaceful all evening. Organizers put people in place ahead of time to stay at key points along the route to watch for and report any suspicious activity. The protest was one of hundreds over the weekend and one of three in the area - there were two protests in Winchester on Friday and one in Woodstock on Saturday.