It’s been a month since the Black Lives Matters protesters were tear-gassed in Fredericksburg and on the Falmouth Bridge during a couple of their early marches.
Their eyes have long stopped burning, but it was clear Wednesday that the painful memories of those encounters are still as fresh as ever.
“Those were the scariest days of my life,” protest leader Eddie Banks said in front of a large group outside the Fredericksburg Police Department. “I was still scared when we walked up here today. I felt like I was choking on imaginary tear gas.”
A group of what appeared to be between 120 and 150 people descended on the police station following a march that began at Hurkamp Park. The group included members of four or five different groups that formed following the infamous Memorial Day death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis and have been protesting almost daily in the downtown area.
Another group, Black Lives Matters FXBG, had its own separate march in the downtown area after the larger group had gone to the police station. Leaders of the other groups have decided not to march with BLMfxbg because of differences with its leaders.
The number of marchers were much larger Wednesday than what had been seen in recent weeks. Group leaders had made a concerted effort to put together a larger protest Wednesday in part to commemorate the one-month anniversary of being hit tear-gassed and in part as a response to the huge Back the Blue rally in the city Sunday in support of police.
The protesters, mostly young people in their teens or early 20s, called the Back the Blue rally disrespectful to their movement. They said that that gathering, along with a recent Tucker Carlson segment on Fox News that they say unfairly characterized their actions, have resulted in credible death threats and doxxing.
“On Sunday, they filled the streets with hate,” Banks said. “Today, we showed that Fredericksburg is much more than that.”
As the larger group gathered at the park Wednesday, leaders pleaded with marchers to continue being peaceful and to ignore any counter-protesters they might encounter on the march. They even eliminated profanity that was featured in some of their earlier chants. For example, instead of saying “[expletive] the police,” they instead chanted “prosecute the police.”
Police Chief Brian Layton, City Councilman Matt Kelly and others were waiting as the group marched to the police station parking area. The group spent about 90 minutes airing complaints about the May 31 tear gas incident on Cowan Boulevard and criticized police for their actions and for still not releasing a report about the incident. A number of speakers cried openly as they re-lived the incident, and some criticized the police for supporting the Back the Blue march.
Layton, who has already apologized for the police response to the early protest, insisted that the May 31 incident is still being investigated. He and Capt. Betsy Mason took extended criticism from the crowd, including on issues that had nothing to do with city police, but finally walked away after one protester referred to “racist, misogynistic pigs.”
The protesters also repeatedly expressed support for the “Fredericksburg 50,” a reference to the protesters facing misdemeanor charges after being arrested for alleged curfew violations in early June. The protesters want all of the charges dropped.
Keith Epps: 540/374-5404