WOODSTOCK — Dozens of area residents stood outside the Historic Courthouse on Saturday to protest racism and support equal rights under the law.
The rally was organized by 18-year-old Edinburg resident Jasmine Jones, who said she wanted to “do something in this community” as part of protests around the U.S. and other countries following the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.
Four Minneapolis officers have been arrested, one charged with second-degree murder after he was shown on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for longer than eight minutes.
Saturday’s rally in Woodstock included a moment of silence that lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor Floyd’s memory.
Jones said 180 people had signed up on Facebook to attend Saturday’s rally, and it looked like about that many flooded the courthouse square between noon and 1 p.m.
Many held signs in support of racial equality and the Black Lives Matter movement; most attendees wore masks to protect against COVID-19.
Though her mother initially feared for her daughter organizing a public protest in a county she saw as resistant to change, Jones remembered thinking, “That’s exactly why it does need to happen in this county.”
Quoting the Bible, I John 2:9, Jones told listeners, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in the darkness.”
“We are still very much in the darkness,” she continued, “and something has to change. As the next generation we have to be the change, because I’m tired. I’m tired of hearing about innocent black lives being taken. I’m tired of not feeling as equal as the white people in this world. I’m tired of just being looked at differently because of the color of my skin. I’m just tired, and I know you are, too.”
Protesters echoed her sentiments, telling the Northern Virginia Daily they also hoped for change.
“I just think that as a person of color in this community that there’s a lot of racism in this county,” Keysi Brito, of Woodstock, said of her Mexican heritage. “I remember in high school being called racial slurs down the high school hallway.”
James Madison University education major Alexis Lincoln also recalled racist remarks at Central High School, saying she hopes for a rehaul of the curriculum to include black and Latino history, a more diverse teaching staff and a crackdown on racist remarks from students and teachers alike.
“I saw it growing up, I went to school here,” she said. “Saw my black friends and peers get discriminated against like literally in the classroom. I’ve heard comments, ... teachers saying derogatory comments toward minorities in the school.”
Officers with the Woodstock Police Department were on site to help with traffic control along Main Street as well as keep the peace, said Police Chief Eric Reiley.
“Any time we have a large group we want to make sure we’re ready and positioned if needed,” said Reiley.
Jones met with police while planning the protest, and “our goal is the same as hers,” Reiley said.
“I think this is intended to be a peaceful gathering of people wanting to have their voices heard,” he said before the protest.
This was the county’s first in-person protest in response to Floyd’s death, said Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter. Around the region, protests have also taken place in Winchester and Front Royal, and he said a caravan of protesters drove through the county last week.
The rally succeeded in being peaceful, and speeches lasted nearly an hour.
Speakers included Jones and her mother, Autumn; Woodstock resident Karen Nathan; and three area clergy who all had personal stories of either surviving racial inequality or witnessing its effects on loved ones.
Nathan, who said she experienced racial inequality growing up with Jewish family members and converting to Judaism as an adult, realized she had no idea what the black community was facing until shopping at a big box store one day with her husband Gary Hines, who is African American.
That’s when she learned her husband seeks out employees to help him find items because it “cuts down on the number of employees who follow him around.”
“A 53,” she said, “I finally realized what white privilege was.”
Calling for “a love revolution,” Pastor Rebecca Murray, who co-founded the multi-cultural church Portering the Glory International in Edinburg with her husband Paul, challenged listeners to find ways to support the movement toward black equality.
“We know they’re hurting, we know their hearts are breaking and we have to do something about it,” she said. “We’re part of each other.”
Pastor Leon McCray, of Lighthouse Church & Marketplace Ministries International in Woodstock, shared about being arrested on Monday after he called 911 to report a group of men assaulting him on property he owns in Edinburg.
“I had to draw my weapon to save my life,” he said on Saturday.
When police and sheriff’s deputies arrived, he said, only one talked with him but didn’t ask for his story.
“I got arrested for brandishing a weapon,” he said. “It saved my life. ‘I don’t care.’ In other words, my Second Amendment right, they didn’t care.
“And so they took my weapon, and in front of this mob of five white individuals that were still threatening my life when the police and sheriff [deputies] showed up … they put me in handcuffs, put me in the car, took me to jail.”
He said his church was learning of this story on Saturday along with everyone else because he hadn’t had a chance to tell them yet.
“How humiliating,” he said. “How dehumanizing … to look at this mob of individuals cheering on the sidelines waving as I was carted off to go to jail.”
He was later released on his own recognizance pending a court date, he said, but wasn’t allowed to make a statement until released to go home, and only after insisting. He said they let him give a written statement, and the next day he wrote the Sheriff’s Office and arranged to tell the sheriff his story.
“What’s so insulting is that when I cried out for help to the sheriff’s department, I couldn’t get any help. When I cried out to them to hear my voice, as to what happened, they didn’t want to hear my voice,” he said.
“My black life didn’t matter. But I’m here to tell you, as a Kingdom son, my black life does matter.”
Carter said on Sunday that he and McCray talked at least twice during the week. Carter said additional charges have been filed against others involved in the incident and that the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is reviewing the case.
“Of course I listened, and I would do that with anyone,” Carter said.
He said a first 911 call came in before McCray’s call.
“The original call was there was a disturbance and a man brandishing a gun,” Carter said. The 911 operator asked McCray during his phone call if he was the one holding the gun, Carter explained. “Law enforcement, when responding to a call, are wired to locate the gun and locate the threat.”
“I think Mr. McCray is a decent person,” Carter said. “And I think the staff here at the Sheriff’s Office have decent people.”
The sheriff has invited McCray to talk with his staff to explain his perspective as an African American man.
“Mr. McCray did agree to do that at some future point. We did make that agreement,” Carter said.
“Because of all that’s going on in the nation, I think talking and listening is critical.”
Ready for reconciliation, Pastor Karen Caspersen, a Lutheran minister in Woodstock, urged listeners on Saturday to remember they’re “all the same in the sight of God.”
“We are here to say, and as a white person I say it, ‘I’m sorry.’ I thought I got it, but I didn’t,” she said. “We are here to say, “Please speak to us, tell us what we haven’t heard. Our ears are open, our mind is open, and hopefully our heart as well.”
This story has been updated to say that Karen Nathan converted to Judaism as an adult. Her paternal ancestors were Jewish, and they inter-married with Christians.