Not even the 90-degree heat could match the fire and passion of the nearly 3,000 people who gathered Saturday afternoon in Fairfax City’s Old Town Square to show that Black Lives Matter. The June 6 peaceful protest was organized by Fairfax High students, joining with people across the nation and world, after George Floyd’s murder.
Because of the pandemic, they wore masks, but they carried signs with powerful messages, and several shared their stories with the crowd. Meanwhile, drivers passing by honked their horns in solidarity; and often, attendees chanted “Black Lives Matter,” “George Floyd,” “I Can’t Breathe” and “No Justice, No Peace.”
Fairfax Academy counselor Maria Martin experienced racism growing up in Michigan. So, she said, “It’s important finally being able to have a platform, take a stand and speak up for people who can’t. My husband’s a law-enforcement officer, and there are so many good ones, but that’s not good enough anymore. The bad ones are overshadowing them right now, and we’ve got to get rid of them.”
Fairfax High teacher Bruni Herring recalled shopping for college supplies with her mother in Woolworth’s in New York City, where she grew up. “My mom opened her purse to get her shopping list, and an employee followed us around the store,” said Herring. “She believed my mom was shoplifting and told her manager. My mom gave him some choice words, dropped everything and we left. She told me, ‘We’ll never shop here again.’”
Herring sang the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” during the protest. She attended because, “As a teacher of color, I’m always telling my students we all have a voice, we all matter. Whatever our race, religion or gender, we’re all human – and I want them to know love conquers hate.”
A MOTHER told the crowd, “We aren’t born racist, so we have to be able to raise anti-racist children – it starts at home. And elections have consequences, so don’t forget to vote.”
Talking about police brutality, a Philadelphia woman told how, one morning at 6 a.m., “Six police officers broke down my door with a battering ram, looking for my boyfriend. People say, ‘Aren’t you afraid to live in Philly?’ and I say, ‘No, I’m afraid of the police.’”
“We know that silence is violence,” said Erich DiCenzo, Fairfax Academy’s Musical Theater/Actors Studio director. “To all the students here today, you’re on the right side of history. This is not a fad – keep speaking out.” He said he was proud to stand by his students to represent the diversity comprising Fairfax High and FCPS.
Elementary-school teacher Evie Korovesis came to support her black friends and let her students know “I’m always in their corner.” And another white woman said white silence must end and people should be educated about racism.
One speaker said, “It’s not enough that George Floyd’s murderers are charged; we want them in prison.” She called for police defunding so more money could go toward healthcare and social services. And, she added, “We’re going to keep marching every day until all killer cops are in prison and this country is a safer place for all of us.”
Yet another woman said, “We like to think Fairfax County is different and police brutality doesn’t happen here. But it does, and we need to stop it.” Agreeing, a white female told attendees, “All lives matter, but no lives matter until black lives matter.”
Fairfax City resident Arralean Ellis wants change and real equality for black people so things will be better for her grandchildren. “I grew up in Alabama during segregation,” she said. “We couldn’t go into white people’s houses and drank from separate water fountains. And if I got hungry while shopping, I couldn’t eat at Woolworth’s counter like white people did.”
Although progress has been made, it’s still not enough, said Ellis. “We all need to work together to get the laws changed,” she said. “I worked in corrections for 30 years, and nobody told us, ‘I can’t breathe,’ because someone’s knee was on their neck. We need justice in this country; and if we continue to change, we’ll have justice and peace.”
THE ENTIRE CROWD then sat in silence for 8 minutes, 46 seconds – the same length of time the Minneapolis police officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck before he died. Afterward, they chanted “Black lives matter,” and Chantilly’s Jonathan Wilson told them, “I hope our message goes into the homes and lives of everyone across this nation and world.”
“The problem of abusive cops is a fact,” he continued. “If you know someone being bullied or abused, speak up about it – because, if not, they grow up and become abusers because they can’t understand why that happened to them. Bring a message of peace and love so they can change the world when we’re not around.”
Erin Hopkins, a black Fairfax High grad, said, “There needs to be substantial, concrete change – and that starts with us. My father, boyfriend, former classmates and other black men I know have been stopped on Fairfax City streets by white cops who asked for I.D. and where they were going. It’s very discomforting; I don’t feel protected.”
Now a senior at UVA, she was there in 2017 when the alt right disturbances happened in Charlottesville. “I was scared, and the university didn’t tell anyone the KKK would be on campus,” said Hopkins. “But in Fairfax, the discrimination comes more in microaggressions. There are no public spaces here where black people feel comfortable and a sense of belonging.”
Furthermore, she said, “I’d like to see more public acknowledgement of the injustices by people in power, such as the mayor and City Council, because change has to start locally and work from the bottom up. [Racism] has been going on since 1619, when the first slaves were brought here, and has been institutionalized. It’s a systemic problem in every sector of black Americans’ lives.”
Regarding Saturday’s protest in Fairfax, Hopkins said, “It warms my heart at the same time as it breaks it. There are people of different races, backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses here; but, also, we’re protesting for black people to have the same rights as everyone else – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”