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Katrina Turner acknowledged that there’s a pandemic, but said that Black and brown people have been in a pandemic for hundreds of years. When people witness a murder on TV, sometimes they have to risk something to stand up for what’s right, she said, and cannot continue to sit back and be silent.
“I understand the pandemic. Everybody who was out there Saturday understood it. What people need to realize: They put so many things in front of racism to where they don’t even know it’s real,” she said. “But, with people rising up like this, and everybody knows it is real, this is what’s going to bring the reality that something needs to be done with the police officers ― not just here, but everywhere.”
And if Saturday’s protest does not bring change to start investigating local police officers who have been reported, then they don’t believe in justice, she said.
Amid a global pandemic that has altered people’s daily lives, many are gathering in remembrance of Black lives that have been lost at the hands of law enforcement and to reiterate that Black lives matter.
But as demonstrations are underway nationwide, medical professionals weighed in on best practices to mitigate potential spread of COVID-19 in an instance where social distancing is nearly impossible to maintain.
Last weekend, about 1,000 people gathered in downtown Charlottesville to march from the city’s police department to Washington Park to join demonstrators around the nation to protest racial injustice in the wake of the death of George Floyd. A video that swept the globe showed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death sparked numerous protests, but activists said they’re protesting for several other Black people who died at the hands of police or outside of our legal system, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
In the days since George Floyd’s death, the officers involved are facing criminal charges and, in Virginia, multiple days of protests prompted Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday to set in motion the removal of the massive Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
Organizers at Saturday’s protest in Charlottesville continuously reminded participants to remain 6 feet apart, and masks and other face coverings were worn properly most of the time. Hand sanitizer was dispersed as a megaphone was passed between speakers.
Community organizer Don Gathers could be seen wearing a mask that read: “I can’t breathe.”
“People just have to be mindful and aware that we are battling two pandemics right now: COVID-19 and the continued murder of Black and brown people on the street at the hands of police,” said Gathers.
While Gathers’ face mask remained in place for the duration of the march, he recognized that social distancing was challenging to maintain at the event.
“It’s nearly impossible to socially distance,” Gathers said. “We are a loving community and have been avoiding human contact, but it’s tough.”
Ryan McKay, a senior policy analyst at the Thomas Jefferson Health District, said that chanting and yelling can heighten the risk of spread as respiratory droplets are one of the ways COVID-19 is spread, and that wearing face coverings or masks is still essential.
“It’s one of the biggest things we can do to minimize the spread,” McKay explained.
He stressed some protesters in attendance could be asymptomatic. And as such, he said that following a protest or rally, participants should be mindful of possible symptoms, stay home when they notice symptoms and contact their primary care provider to determine if a test may be needed.
As for day-of-event procedures, he suggested social distancing as much as physically possible, disinfecting megaphones or signs that are being shared, or perhaps not sharing the items at all.
Gathers said that Black Lives Matter is more than a movement and has become a revolution that operates in many capacities.
“There are many ways people can get involved,” Gathers said. “They just have to find their own avenue and niche they are comfortable with and start there.”
For some, that is participating in public protest, pandemic or not. For those that may not feel safe showing up to demonstrations at this time, there are other opportunities for support or advocacy.
Gathers said other avenues include speaking to government officials and participating in government meetings, a process that is currently virtual due to the pandemic. He also suggested being a witness when able as law enforcement stops Black and brown people.
“If not recording, just make sure that you are seeing what is happening so that things may not go awry,” Gathers explained.
Turner said Charlottesville should expect more protests, noting that the charges that have been brought against the other officers in the George Floyd case is a testament that protests do raise awareness.
And if the protests stop in Charlottesville, people are going to think that it’s alright for local police officers to terrorize people, she explained.
“We’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue until they hear us,” said Turner, adding they said they heard us, but they haven’t shown it.
Those who don’t believe in marching can stay back, she said, but don’t bad-mouth those who do.
“Those who didn’t march and didn’t do anything, I don’t care about their opinion ‘cause I know this march did something,” she said.
Charlottesville government agencies and officials have released statements before and after Saturday’s protests, such as the Albemarle and Charlottesville public schools, Mayor Nikuyah Walker’s statement of solidarity as a Black woman as well as the joint statement from Chiefs RaShall Brackney and Chief Andrew Baxer, of the police and fire departments.
Councilors Michael Payne and Lloyd Snook were in attendance Saturday, and Councilor Sena Magill typically does not attend large rallies due to her husband being injured by white nationalists during the Unite the Right rally in 2017. However, Turner said she would’ve appreciated seeing more city officials marching with the crowd.
“I don’t trust our city officials here in Charlottesville. There’s too much cover-up here,” Turner said. “And I’m tired of it. That’s why we’re marching because they don’t see us. We come to the City Council every two weeks. We tell you what’s going on in this city, but you still refuse to listen to us.”
But Angeline Conn, an activist who initiated the protest in Charlottesville, simply said that she hoped regardless of who attended the protest that the demands were heard.
She stressed Black people don’t just get into activism — every day is activism for Black people.
“Protests are voices of Black folks who have been oppressed,” she said. “…. This is an uprising, and we’re tired.”
But as with any large gathering, there’s a heightened risk of spreading the coronavirus during a protest, said Dr. Taison Bell, an assistant professor of medicine in the divisions of Infectious Diseases and International Health and Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Virginia.
Not only are people in close contact with one another, but “things like yelling, screaming and chanting could potentially cause the spread to happen in a wider field than just 6 feet,” Bell said.
Wearing a mask will reduce the risk of spreading the virus, he said.
Many Charlottesville protesters were wearing masks. However, Bell said he noticed several either pull their masks down or remove them while giving speeches or speaking to the press.
“The mask has to be on your face to work,” Bell said. “If you’re wearing a mask, but you’re holding it down from your face to talk, at that moment you’re not wearing a mask.”
Protests across the nation have gotten out of hand, prompting metro cities to issue curfews. Among the concerns expressed include protesters burning or looting businesses. But social media videos have shown that some of the protests have been infiltrated, and Black Lives Matter protesters have attempted to confront people destroying properties.
Bell said limiting the virus spread becomes much more difficult once a protest turns violent.
“The virus doesn’t care what race you are or what your political beliefs are,” Bell said. “You just have to be a human. So, when there is a violent protest where people are being arrested, you’re in close proximity to other people and the potential to spread the virus increases.”
Spokesperson for the Charlottesville Police Department Tyler Hawn says the department has been adhering to protocols and policies to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“If there were a point where our officers would have to come into close contact with a large crowd, we follow a series of decontamination and self-monitoring procedures by frequent handwashing and sanitizing frequently touched objects or worn clothing,” Hawn said.
He added that officers log their temperatures and monitor symptoms daily before and after shifts, with a requirement to self-quarantine for 14 days if experiencing symptoms.
Officers present during the demonstration remained at a distance, directing traffic away from the crowd during the procession.
“We are thankful our community has expressed their civil discourse peacefully, which has permitted us to keep a respectful distance with no police intervention,” Hawn said. “We strongly recommend the public continue to adhere to face covering and social distancing guidelines to keep them and our officers as healthy as possible.”
Turner said Saturday’s protest went well, noting that she and other activists made it clear that no one was going to tear Charlottesville down.
“We informed them that when Aug. 12 came and we stood up for this city so no one could tear it down, we stood up again at the rally,” Turner said. “And let them know we’re not tearing this city down. You will not burn this city. We’re here for a peaceful march. We’re here to let them know that we are tired, and we need something done about what’s going on with the police in our community.”