The protest that swept through Roanoke on May 30 started not long after a Roanoke minister prayed for justice and unification.
“Bless us now, oh God, as we leave this place,” the Rev. David Jones invoked before a large crowd gathered at Washington Park. “But we never leave the place of solidarity, the place of unity and the place of love and peace. A place where we continue to seek the welfare of all people, regardless of color, regardless of age, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of political affiliation.”
Hours later, after midnight, the long day of protests ended with a Black man lying on his stomach on the sidewalk of Salem Avenue, his hands cuffed behind him as he was arrested by Roanoke police.
In between, people marched, prayed, shouted and chanted, and some were even pepper-sprayed. People who had never protested a day in their lives took to Roanoke’s streets yelling at police. Officers trained to protect and serve the public stood shoulder to shoulder in defense of their own police station as their fellow citizens massed in front of them.
Six days after the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died while a white police officer kept a knee on his neck, protests over his killing unfurled across the United States, including Roanoke.
Roanoke’s protests were nowhere near as violent as those in larger cities. Yet on the afternoon of May 30 and early morning of May 31, city officers used pepper or OC (Oleoresin capsicum) spray four times and fired pepper balls at the ground eight times on Campbell and Salem avenues, a police spokeswoman confirmed. There were few injuries, little property damage and, in the end, seven arrests. It was a day of prayer and profanity, slogans and speeches, confrontation and peacemaking.
From a rally to a march
The first event May 30 billed as “Say Their Names: Stop the Killing” was organized by Roanoke’s Black Lives Matter chapter and convened in Washington Park, a popular gathering place in the city’s predominantly black Gainsboro neighborhood.
The park is named for Booker T. Washington, the famous Franklin County-born African American educator and author, who historically was known for not favoring confrontational civil rights demonstrations in the early 1900s. However, Washington famously protested the lynchings of Black people in 1904, writing that “If the law is disregarded when a Negro is concerned, it will be soon be disregarded when a white man is concerned.” Translation: If black people cannot expect protection from the law, then neither can anyone else.
Hundreds turned out on the sunny day beneath a bright blue sky dabbed with puffy clouds. Families with children held signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” “Color is Not a Crime,” “Silence is Betrayal” and “I Can’t Breathe,” which were some of Floyd’s last words before he died. The crowd included scores of people, Black and white, young and old people, mothers with babies.
Taylor Saunders, an 18-year-old biracial woman from Roanoke, was part of the crowd. The widely viewed video of Floyd’s death had prompted her to come to the park. It was her first protest.
“There was a feeling of, OK, enough is enough,” Saunders said. “How many more people have to die. ... How many people is this going to have to affect before it becomes a problem we’re willing to address?”
She was also inspired by the outpouring of shock not just from Black communities but from people of all races. The world was responding to the need for change. “It allowed the world to see just how much of a problem there was.”
Before the march, Saunders stopped at a store to pick up supplies to make a sign, where she met another young woman doing the same thing. The other woman said it would also be her first protest. They agreed to check in on each other during the afternoon.
People at the park not only spoke of Floyd, but of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man killed by two white men in Brunswick, Georgia. They said the name of Breonna Taylor, killed in her apartment by Louisville, Kentucky, police. They remembered Kionte Spencer, a teen killed by Roanoke County police after a standoff in 2017. Some held signs in memory of Linda Pierson, a Roanoke woman killed in a hit-and-run earlier this year after she left her job as a cafeteria worker at the Roanoke City Jail. The man who hit her and fled will serve a year and a half in jail.
The event kicked off at 3 p.m. Brenda Hale of the NAACP and Bernadette “B.J.” Lark were featured speakers. Then, Jordan Bell, a 29-year-old local activist and chronicler of Roanoke’s African American history, stirred the crowd into action.
“I come to you in the spirit of my ancestors who fought, bled and died for a country that didn’t give a damn about them,” Bell said in a tone that was direct. Standing with a hand in the pocket of his cargo shorts and wearing a white T-shirt with a logo, Bell told the crowd how he had recently spoken to Richard Chubb, an 84-year-old black activist and retired Roanoke educator, and had come away feeling that his own experience was not that dissimilar to that of the older man who grew up in a segregated society.“If y’all want to march further downtown,” Bell said to the crowd, “again, I’m with all of that.”
Jones concluded his prayer by paraphrasing the Old Testament book of Amos, lines that Martin Luther King Jr. famously repeated many times, including in his “I Have a Dream Speech” and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail:”
“We pray, of God, that one day we shall truly be able to see justice roll down like a river,” Jones intoned. “... and flow like an ever-flowing stream over this land called America.”
Just after 4 p.m., about an hour after the rally began, people began leaving the park and walking in unison down the hill toward Orange Avenue and eventually to downtown Roanoke.