A segment that aired on the Fox News program "Tucker Carlson Tonight" has drawn national attention to Fredericksburg and inflamed tensions between protesters and some city residents.
On his program Thursday night, Carlson played a portion of a 911 call made from downtown Fredericksburg on June 13 by a woman reporting that she was trapped in her car by protesters, that she couldn't get out of the area and that the protesters were scaring her child.
The dispatcher responded that the protests are considered city-sponsored events and suggested the caller contact City Hall.
After the caller reported that a protester was on her car, the dispatcher told her she will let an officer know. By the end of the three-minute call, the woman reported that she had been able to move out of the area.
City Manager Tim Baroody told City Council at a June 16 work session that the protests are considered city-sponsored events, but said 911 calls with criminal complaints—to include jumping on cars—will be responded to by a police officer.
In a message posted to Facebook on Thursday, Fredericksburg Police spokeswoman Sarah Kirkpatrick said the department has opened a criminal investigation to identify the person who jumped on the 911 caller's car. She said dispatchers will notify callers that officers are stationed a block away from protesters "not only to divert traffic, but for your safety."
"If you express concern for your safety, you can be certain an officer will respond to assist you," Kirkpatrick said in the message.
“We deeply regret the incident,” Baroody said Friday evening in an emailed statement from the city. “We want to assure the public that our Police Department is here to protect all of our residents and visitors. We adjusted our 911 dispatch protocols long before the Fox News report last night. Downtown Fredericksburg is a safe and welcoming place.”
Ryan Vera, a representative of the multiple groups that have been protesting police brutality in downtown streets since May 31, said during the event described in the 911 call, a 13-year-old boy who was not part of the protesting group did jump on her car. Vera said the group immediately pulled the boy away.
"We do not condone or participate in that type of behavior," the protesters wrote in a statement emailed Friday to The Free Lance–Star, referring to the individual jumping on the car.
Vera said the protesters, who are usually around 20 in number, have been meeting at City Hall every day at 4 p.m. He said they usually proceed from there to the corner of William and Charles streets and then elsewhere around the downtown area "organically."
He said protesters find a block and march around the crosswalks for about "four to five minutes" and then move to another block, allowing traffic to move past.
Julian Stebbins–Sharpless, another protester, said that any situations in which protesters physically block a car occur when the car has started moving through the crosswalk when protesters are still in it.
Luigi Castiglia, who owns Castiglia's, the Italian restaurant at the corner of William and Charles streets, said he has witnessed protesters blocking traffic, but has not felt any threat of violence from protesters. Castiglia said he does feel the presence of the protesters is causing him to lose business.
"People, families, are outside, trying to eat and they're hearing '[expletive] the police,' " he said. "People tell us they don't want to come to the restaurants because of the protesters."
Two other businesses along the protesters' normal route, Olde Towne Butcher and Foode, said they have not witnessed violent behavior.
"It’s all been pretty darn peaceful, with the exception of the first couple of days [May 31, June 1 and 2], at least in front of my store at the corner of William and Charles," said Keith Lebor, owner of Olde Towne Butcher. "It's been fairly reserved."
He said people have been coming to the former site of the slave auction block in front of his store to hold vigils and pray.
Georgia Bell, a manager at Foode on Princess Anne Street near City Hall, said she has seen "nothing but peaceful protest."
"They haven't been blocking traffic in front of our business, from my experience," she said.
According to the city release Friday, the 911 dispatch center received 20 calls with complaints about the protesters on June 10 and another 20 on June 11. There were 19 calls on June 13 and 10 calls on June 15. Since then, there have been no more than 4 calls each day. There were none on June 16 and 17 and none between Sunday and Tuesday of this week.
There has been only one police report filed, on June 24, according to the city.
Vera said several Facebook groups critical of the local protests have been sharing pictures of protesters with their names and some commenters have threatened to run them over or shoot them. "All lives splatter," a commenter posted on one page.
Vera said the protesters will continue to march downtown, asking the city to provide a full explanation for the police department's use of tear gas against demonstrators on May 31 and June 1, which they say violates the police department's use of force directive.
According to the New York Times, Fredericksburg is one of 100 cities where authorities used tear gas against protesters, who nationwide have been demanding an end to police violence since the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Earlier this week, Greenlaw apologized personally for the use of tear gas in the city.
The city is in the process of investigating the events of May 31 and the first week of June. The initial commitment was to have a report completed in "summer 2020," but the City Council has now committed to completing an internal review in three to six weeks, according to the city's statement.
Adele Uphaus-Conner: 540/735-1973