By Randy Arrington
LURAY, June 12 — He didn’t seem to be able to quite make out what the crowd was chanting across the street as he finished pumping gas in his car, but they had his attention.
The well-dressed Asian man and his wife began to slowly amble toward the sidewalk along Main Street staring inquisitively at a long line of people carrying signs and shouting.
A call-and-response of “No justice — no peace” rippled through the crowd. Their numbers stretched so far down Main Street that the chants sounded like a jumbled chorus of “Row, row, row your boat.” And while the two apparent tourists across the street couldn’t make out all of the words, they slowly began to join the crowd on the refrain: “No peace… No peace… No peace.”
It may have sounded as if they were offering a counter argument to the protestors — but the escalating emotion that grew in their voices, and the determined looks they held in their eyes clearly showed they understood the universal message of Friday night’s protest despite any language barriers.
“Join the fight against hate, not only here, or in this country, but all over the world,” the event’s organizer, Michael Shores, told the crowd that gathered along the greenway at the onset of the march. “In the name of peace, we ask this of you: Use your voice.”
More than 120 joined Friday’s protest march organized by a group of local young people under the group name “All Power to All People.” The protest followed thousands of such events held all over the world after the May 25 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The video of that officer holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes — as Floyd called out for his mother and stated several times “I can’t breathe” — has resonated in many cultures as a beacon for injustice around the world.
According to Luray Police Chief C.S. “Bow” Cook, four different groups approached the town about holding public events after two Confederate monuments were vandalized with graffiti on June 1 as protests began to break out across the country. Two of those groups joined to plan the first public event, a June 4 prayer meeting held at the West Luray Rec Center. A third group, made up of about 25 family members, marched along the Hawksbill Greenway last Saturday. The fourth group was All Power to All People.
After initially setting plans for an event, the group was informed that they needed to have a permit in order to conduct a protest march in town. So, Shores filed the permit and the group agreed to no anti-police signs.
“This event is in no way anti-police,” Shores told the crowd before the march began. “We are fortunate in Luray to have police who protect us, who know what it means to protect and serve.”
The signs they did carry spoke only of the injustice and racism at the center of the current movement.
“ Page County isn’t exempt. Injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere.”
“Being silent is complicit.”
“Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it doesn’t affect you personally.”
“Systematic racism is real. Change the system.”
“I can’t breathe.”
Darryl Haley, an African American who has lived in Luray for 20 years and is now running a write-in campaign for mayor, was asked to address the crowd prior to the march.
“People are afraid of the word change, so I like to say that we’re gonna ‘bend the light,’” Haley said. “Have you talked to your neighbor? Do you know your neighbor? Change is going to happen in small ways.”
Haley, a retired NFL player who operates a bed and breakfast in Luray, talked about his youth and growing up in Los Angeles.
“I understand the anger; I understand how you feel. I grew up in L.A.… straight outta Compton, that was me,” Haley said. “I saw a lot of things growing up — but I back Blue, I always back Blue and I hope you will too.”
The group recognized eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence as the march began up Mechanic Street — the same amount of time the Minneapolis police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck. After the silence, the group started various chants as they made their way over to Main Street and up toward the West Luray Rec Center.
“Enough is enough.”
“Black Lives Matter.”
“No justice, no peace.”
Audre King, a young African American who has been remodeling the rec center for the last few years, opened and closed the one-hour prayer vigil. He reminded the crowd gathered there that the building used to serve as the Andrew Jackson School, which educated black children in Page County through the 11th grade.
“There was a time when we couldn’t get a [high school diploma] in Page County because of the color of our skin. Families had to send their children elsewhere to complete their education,” King said. “I have heard recently people tell me slavery was 150 years ago — but Jim Crow wasn’t. They said let sleeping dogs lie, but racism can’t sleep any more. It took something like this for that dog to get up and bite someone.”
King’s opening remarks at the rec center were followed by a soothing vocalist: “Lord lift us up; peace like no other. You are peace God. You are our hope Lord, hope for tomorrow.”
About 10 speakers, mostly clergy, addressed the crowd and prayed with them at the vigil.
“The sign that stands out the most to me here today is ‘We must do better,’” one member of the clergy told the crowd. “In order to do better, we must first reconcile with ourselves, before we can reconcile with our brothers and sisters.”
“I’m a new dad,” another speaker said. “I have a young boy who’s an African American, and I’m thinking I will need to have a conversation with him to say, ‘Hey son, you may have to face these things.’”
After each member of the local clergy spoke, they were given a flower to place at the foot of a makeshift memorial created for the event, highlighting the names of African Americans who became well known because they were needlessly killed by police. Several speakers complimented the young organizers for their passion and their message.
“Don’t lose your voice,” one speaker said. “Ya’ll are the voice of the future. Ya’ll are the voice of your community.”
The theme of unity and understanding carried throughout the prayer vigil, as each member of the clergy tried to vocalize that all are equal in the eyes of God.
“The Bible says God so loved the world… not God so loved black, or God so loved white… It said for God so loved the WORLD.”
“In a world gone astray, each child of humanity, God, is your child.”
“We need to be able to look into each other’s eyes and see the image of God.”
“Jesus prayed for unity, he said ‘Father make them one.’”
The messages of hope and unity seemed to overlap, reiterating the cause of today, and tomorrow.
“When people feel threatened, scared or angry — they don’t listen,” one pastor said. “If we can listen, we can understand.”
“I hope we are waking up from what is a result of human blindness and the hardening of hearts,” another clergyman added in prayer. “I see a spirit of unity in these young people. Protect and look over them, and may their cause be so bonded in their hearts that they will never forget.”
Many of the elders at the event reminded the more youthful attendees of how things used to be decades ago, and asked that they take their voices, their passion and their mission beyond a single prayer vigil.
“We thank you for your desire to see change,” one pastor told them. “Remember to reject the things that divide us. What you do a month from now, a year from now, will matter.”
Just as he had done eight days earlier, King closed out the second peaceful protest in Luray in a little over a week. He spoke of the courage that the youthful organizers showed in planning the event, and he spoke of our small community becoming a beacon of hope for a world that’s hurting and angry.
“We are going to be the example. The nation will follow Page County. We aren’t going to just talk about the change; we are going to be the change.”