A showdown on the Falmouth Bridge between protesters and members of the Stafford Sheriff’s Office ended Monday evening with some burning eyes but no serious injuries.
It was one of at least three demonstrations in the Fredericksburg area Monday and was the third straight day of protests spurred by the death of George Floyd during a police arrest in Minneapolis. In response to the continuing tension and an emergency declaration by Gov. Ralph Northam, Fredericksburg City Manager Tim Baroody imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. beginning Monday evening and continuing through Wednesday morning.
That followed a protest Sunday that resulted in police firing tear gas to disperse the crowd twice, first on Cowan Boulevard and later downtown. A couple of downtown businesses had broken glass afterward.
The protest that led to the bridge started downtown Monday evening. Demonstrators headed down Caroline Street before moving over to Princess Anne Street, chanting the familiar refrains such as “no justice, no peace” and “hands up, don’t shoot.”
The march was peaceful, though some motorists appeared not pleased that those streets were basically shut down as the group passed. Other motorists expressed support by blowing their horns and joining in the chants.
But tensions rose considerably as the large group turned onto the Falmouth Bridge and headed into Stafford. A large contingent of deputies was waiting with tear gas canisters, heavy equipment and a drone. When someone from the Sheriff’s Office announced over a loudspeaker that “this has been declared an unlawful assembly,” some of the protestors responded with loud shouting and expletives.
A standoff that shut down bridge traffic for a considerable time included periods where protesters sat and even laid on the roadway.
Finally the Sheriff’s Office’s Civil Disturbance Unit formed a line across the road and move methodically toward the protesters. A number of tear gas canisters were fired toward the group, many of which were picked up and thrown back in the direction of law enforcement.
One motorist heading into the county apparently couldn’t wait any longer. He drove through the protesters and had a window broken out of his car. A baby was in a car seat next to that window.
The protesters were eventually forced back across the bridge into the city, where they headed back toward downtown. The group had dwindled considerably by the time they reached the intersection of William and Charles streets, where they sat down in the middle of the road with their fists raised.
City Sheriff’s Deputy Billy Reyes reminded the crowd about the 8 p.m. curfew that was in place and warned that arrests would begin at 8:30 p.m. The crowds responded with shouts that included negative comments about the police.
Nevertheless, the vast majority dispersed prior to 8:30. A woman who appeared to be leading the protest stood on the slave auction block and led several minutes of fist-raised silence.
Most of the group then dispersed, and several people were overheard talking about plans to get together downtown again Tuesday afternoon.
A much smaller group was seen later heading down College Avenue toward the city police station. However, the group passed Cowan Boulevard, the street the police department is on, and continued south on U.S. 1.
A city police spokeswoman said officers begin arresting people who were still marching in the College Avenue area around 10:30 p.m., but details were not available.
Two other rallies Monday, at the Stafford County Courthouse and at Market Square downtown, were peaceful and without major incidents.
At the Stafford Courthouse, a crowd of roughly 200 protesters turned out to march with signs, chant and hear others talk about equality and justice.
The crowd was composed mostly of younger people and included a mix of black and white protesters alike. There was no noticeable police presence, unlike problems that arose between police and demonstrators Sunday night along State Route 610 in Stafford, when 10 protesters were arrested after the Sheriff’s Office declared an unlawful assembly.
Those who addressed the crowd Monday explained that their main focus was to keep things organized and peaceful.
Prior to the march, Gary Holland, a pastor at Word of Faith in Dumfries, addressed the protesters in the courthouse parking lot. He told them they were there to be “a little bit disruptive” and emphasized they were there to change policies and do it “without violence and without destroying property” or arrests.
The protest started with the crowd marching from the parking lot and circling the courthouse, chanting and holding up signs. They urged passing drivers to beep, which many did.
The group then gathered at the courthouse steps, where Holland and other speakers emphasized the need for change and inclusion for everyone. They also stressed to the protesters that they need to stay active and try to get others to speak out or nothing will happen.
Nyesha Wilson —a U.S. Army veteran, activist, actress and comedian who lives in Stafford—gave an impassioned speech.
“America has a problem. It’s racism. We need to take it back,” said Wilson, who then mentioned slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I had a dream,” she said, “but unlike Martin, my dream was a nightmare” of a cross burning in her yard and a neighbor asking her to remove the ashes that drifted into his yard. “Our neighbors aren’t helping us.”
She, like other speakers, said there is a need for white people to address racism and a “system working in their favor. Otherwise, we can’t talk.
“It’s time for action, an accountability check ...,” she added. “Until then, we won’t let you have peace.”
Speakers also talked about a need for more accountability and better practices by law enforcement and about the importance of voting and running for political offices to spark change.
Del. Joshua Cole, who represents parts of Stafford and Fredericksburg, showed up to address he crowd, telling them to remember the list of black people killed by police “every single day.” He also told the group to hold elected officials accountable and said those politicians are afraid when groups like the protesters gather.
Cole, the first African American to represent the 28th District in the General Assembly, said in an interview that he was at a Fredericksburg demonstration Sunday night that police dispersed. He said he didn’t see any violence and that police “had us boxed in” and then hit them with tear gas. He believes “outsiders” came in and stirred up trouble.
Around 3 p.m. Monday, as police cruisers circled downtown Fredericksburg, protesters began gathering in Market Square for another march. They held signs reading “Silence is Complicity,” “All Lives Won’t Matter Until Black Lives Do” and “I can’t breathe,” which were Floyd’s last words, uttered as a police officer pinned his neck to the ground.
At around 3:30, the group began marching down Caroline Street toward the train station and then up Princess Anne past the courthouse and City Hall. Sisters Claire and Lili Watkins, of Fredericksburg, learned about Monday’s march on social media and joined in.
“We’re hoping the police department will listen and include more diversity training,” Claire Watkins, a rising college freshman, said. “We want them to know that the system is brutal and that they have power and that many are abusing it.”
Fredericksburg Sheriff Paul Higgs watched the march as it passed the courthouse.
“There’s no reason for that man [George Floyd] to be dead,” he told protesters as they walked by.
In a brief interview, Higgs said police and deputies would be looking for “people being disruptive,” but he said the mood Monday afternoon was nothing like the one Sunday night.
“They have a right to be protest,” he said. “And they have a right to be upset.”
In a statement Monday, the Fredericksburg branch of the NAACP said it does not “condone or support violent actions,” such as an unsuccessful attempt early Sunday to set the Fredericksburg police headquarters on fire.
“We are pleased with the peaceful protests involving many diverse members of the community,” the statement reads. “We invite the community to join us in our continued efforts to address social injustices, including ways to further enhance police-community relations to further ensure that our community does not face the brutal actions that many other communities have faced.”