The unified cries of native residents echoed alongside the voices of VCU, Virginia Union University and Virginia State University students mere hours after a single announcement ignited demonstrations in over 150 cities and set ablaze a whirlwind of polarizing conversations regarding race relations in America.
“Hands up. Don’t shoot.”
“No justice. No peace.”
“Black lives matter.”
The chants of Richmond protestors reverberated through the heart of VCU’s campus the night of the indictment announcement, and again the next evening on the steps of the John Marshall Circuit Court as students joined local constituents for a city-wide demonstration protesting the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal August shooting of Michael Brown, a black unarmed teenager.
“I don’t want to hear how this isn’t a black issue. This has everything to do with race and systems of oppression,” said Ashleigh Shackelford, a VCU alumna and protest organizer for the demonstration on campus the night of the indictment announcement.
For many historically marginalized citizens, the grand jury decision only further accented an existing perception that the 50 states comprise a white-washed nation that is not “land of the free” for everyone who inhabits it.
“We have nothing to lose but our chains,” protestors shouted into the night as some presented personal naratives, or referenced a study published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement stating that police gun down an unarmed black American every 28 hours.
“What happened at VCU started from a small conversation at the end of an open mic,” said English and African-American studies major Shavontae Patrick as she addressed the mass standing together in solidarity before the circuit courthouse the next day.
VCU’s activism began with Patrick and just four other black females, but soon boasted 700 singing, praying and chanting young adults making their way to the front of the Richmond police station on Main Street.
“It was a beautiful thing to see students actually standing with us, not just taking pictures and putting us on social media like they can’t stand with us,” Patrick said.
Many protestors wielded portions of left-over pizza boxes and other make-shift canvases bearing phrases that mimicked the rumbling chants they voiced in unison.
“AmeriKKKa where being black is punishable by death,” read one sign.
“They say Jim Crow, we say hell no,” read another cardboard statement.
The indictment announcement came just three days before Thanksgiving, subsequently casting a certain caustic irony over the holiday. In Ferguson, locals began to slowly recover from riots that left businesses and private property charred from flames and disappointment alike. Elsewhere, protests triggered arrests and onslaughts of outspoken debate defending both sides of the issue.
Regardless of Wilson or Brown’s respective degree of innocence or guilt however, Brown’s death unmistakably catalyzed the creation of a police state within the Missouri town whose population has fewer residents than VCU has students.
Catastrophic scenes of police utilizing tear gas and rubber bullets on constituents eventually dissipated from evening news cycles as even the media was forced to flee an explosive setting with uncanny parallels to the police brutality characteristic of the Rodney King riots and civil rights era.
“I was angered but also saddened because this keeps happening to my people and my generation keeps doing nothing about it,” said Cherry Payne, a mass communications major at Virginia Union University who also spoke outside the Richmond Circuit Court the day after the decision. “I want to be that change. It’s never fair, but if we come together as we are tonight, it will actually come to play.”
Payne marched at the forefront of the city-wide demonstration, which began at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday. As Payne rhythmically chanted with the crowd through a megaphone, the number of protestors steadily increased until the demonstration’s conclusion around 6 p.m.
As protestors peacefully threaded through downtown they occupied up to three lanes of traffic while city law enforcement traced their progression. At Governor Street, the crowd stood in silence for four and a half minutes in a symbolic display of respect for the number of hours Brown remained in the street before anyone covered his deceased body.
“So many people are standing in solidarity and addressing their privileges and how they can help with their privilege and not stand over others with it,” Patrick said.
In contrast to the outcomes in other cities, and despite protestors repeating phrases like “Police, police. KKK. How many kids have you killed today,” protestors and law enforcement cooperated on both evenings.
“As long as everything remains peaceful we’re going to allow that to happen and we’ll accommodate,” said VCU police officer Nick Hill.
On Tuesday, some residents reiterated that blindly vilifying the police, despite a strained historical relationship or the given circumstance, was not necessarily the right answer.
“Growing up I learned to see police and run like hell, but in Richmond we’re fortunate to have a police department that we can go to. In my experience, I can respect them and demand respect back,” said Charles Willis, the executive director of Citizens Against Crime.
Other added that blaming the overwhelmingly white grand jury for the decision should only reinforce the necessity of fulfilling civic duties and responsibilities.
“We can talk about the demographic makeup of the grand jury all we want, but if you’re not registered to vote then you can’t serve on the grand jury,” said Victor Rodgers, the president of the Urban League of Greater Richmond,.
Rodgers similarly stressed the importance of knowing the law and individual rights.
“I feel like a lot with this generation is a trend, but this is lives we’re talking about. This is a movement that must continue; it can’t just halt or stop,” Patrick said.