The organizer of a racial justice group in Roanoke recommended sweeping changes in schools, jails and the police department to abolish systemic racism.
Slashing funding for the Roanoke Police Department and decriminalizing drugs and nonviolent offenses were among seven steps that Tatiana Durant, organizer of No Justice No Peace, believes will help remedy racism in Roanoke.
But some of the ideas were quickly met with resistance.
Durant and Bernadette “B.J.” Lark, an activist and teacher, held a press conference Wednesday morning outside the municipal building. They recapped the protest of May 30 and the removal of the Robert E. Lee memorial marker, and listed demands to end systemic racism.
“Policing in this country was founded on slave catching and union busting,” Durant said. “We believe Roanoke City as a community can formulate peacekeeping and public safety outside of this institution.”
Durant listed six additional steps:
- Defund the Roanoke City Jail and Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office.
- Remove D.A.R.E, school resource officers and punishments like detention, suspension and expulsion from city public schools.
- Decriminalize drugs.
- Decriminalize theft, removal of statues and other nonviolent offenses.
- Reinvent public safety to promote communal problem solving and de-escalation.
- Invest in community needs: independence, rehabilitation, restoration and abolishing systemic racism.
Durant said the group has not yet been in communication with police Chief Sam Roman, Sheriff Tim Allen or representatives of the school system about making these changes but is dedicated to seeing them through.
“We will not stop until we achieve these demands,” Durant said.
Removing suspension and expulsion in schools will empower children to make mistakes without fear of traumatizing punishment, Durant said. Decriminalizing drugs and theft will also allow for mistakes and put the focus on the source of the crime.
“People have reasons for committing crime, and it is well past time we look at those reasons for those crimes and invest in those issues rather than punishing people for reacting to them,” Durant said.
But Roanoke City Public Schools spokesman Justin McLeod said that school resource officers are needed “to keep our students and staff safe.”
Other city officials also refrained from jumping on board with the proposed changes. Cutting funding for the police department would fall to City Manager Bob Cowell. He declined to comment on the conference, although city spokeswoman Melinda Mayo said she watched the conference on Facebook and didn’t hear many “focused thoughts” for the city administration to respond to.
Police Chief Sam Roman, who has spoken with members of No Justice No Peace in the past, cannot comment on decriminalization because it is not under his purview, said department spokeswoman Caitlyn Cline. The police department enforces the laws but can’t change them, she said.
But Durant said the organization hopes to work with these groups to create practical action steps to achieve the seven items on the list.
Durant and Lark stood with city council candidate Kiesha Preston and two representatives from the Southwest Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, Anne Lusby-Denham and the Rev. David Denham.
Lark revisited the events of May 30, during which she said a nonviolent protest was met with violence from police officers.
“You needed to reassure nonviolent protesters that they would have safe space to exercise their rights in these streets. It wasn’t a hard response,” Lark said. “Instead, we were told, and we now see that … brick and mortar and business would be protected as priority before our human lives.”
Lark referenced the mural in front of her on Campbell Avenue that reads “End Racism Now.”
How do we end racism now? Lark said the answer is simple.
“Treat everyone equal.”