Fredericksburg is tightening its rules on protests that have been occurring in the city since May 31.
Beginning Monday, police will tell all demonstrators who are protesting in the streets without an approved permit that they are violating traffic-safety laws and could be subject to a traffic citation. Those who continue to protest in the street without a permit could be subject to a citation.
The city will continue to support permitted protest activity and expedite reviews of event permit applications, according to a news release from the city.
“It is unfortunate that we are being relegated to request access to exercise our First Amendment rights, but we understand the City’s intentions behind their decision,” The Melanin Cooperative, one of the groups involved in the protests, stated in the city release.
Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw said in an interview that the city’s approach to dealing with protesters is changing based on discussions she had with City Manager Tim Baroody, the police department and the protesters.
“It’s time for everybody to do everything they can to help our downtown businesses for one thing, and many of the protesters agree with that,” she said. “They’re not out to destroy downtown or the businesses downtown because we have had peaceful protests and we have not had looting, we have not had vandalism.”
She noted that the only damage downtown was two broken store windows on May 31.
Fredericksburg has allowed any demonstration in the city to be treated as a city-permitted event since the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Greenlaw said. The recent protests against police violence and racial injustice began in Fredericksburg following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Police used tear gas against protester on Cowan Boulevard and again downtown May 31 and tear gas was used again the next day during a confrontation on the Falmouth Bridge. A number of protesters were arrested in the first few days of demonstrations.
Allowing protests to continue in the city’s streets was seen as a way to de-escalate tensions while city leaders and others held meetings with protesters, Greenlaw said. The city was trying to strike a balance between allowing them to exercise their First Amendment rights and keeping traffic moving, she said.
“We did stretch it,” she said. “There are no two ways about it.”
That approach caught the nation’s attention June 25 when Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson played a segment of a June 13 911 call from a woman reporting that protesters were blocking her car, that she couldn’t get out of the area and that the protesters were scaring her child. The dispatcher responded that the protests are considered city-sanctioned events and suggested the caller contact City Hall.
Carlson noted that Greenlaw had apologized to protesters for the use of tear gas.
Greenlaw said the whole three-minute call to 911 call indicates that the dispatcher was advising the woman not to try to drive through the protest. When the woman said the protesters were on her car, the dispatcher said she would alert officers, but the woman said a short time later that she’d made it through the intersection.
Greenlaw said the officer wasn’t far away, but the caller had gone by the time he got there.
“I thought we were in a really good place prior to that [broadcast]. The protesters were fewer every night. They had not been blocking the streets because we had been working with them and asking them not to, and things were going better,” she said.
“Since then, I have literally received hundreds of emails that describe in graphic terms how I should die,” Greenlaw said. “Unbelievable. And they’re from all over the United States.”
City Council unanimously approved a three-phase plan at its June 23 meeting that includes a review of police actions during the protests, identification and recommendation of proposed criminal justice reforms, and community-wide discussions relating to racial disparities and why they persist.
“We will continue to work with City officials to bring positive change to our community and reach the goals that we have outlined,” The Melanin Cooperative wrote in a statement. “We will continue to protest peacefully in hopes we can build a stronger, more-inclusive community for future generations, and it is our hope through these peaceful activities we can dispel rumors surrounding our actions.”