A student-led protest focused on racial inequality at Radford University is still being planned for Saturday despite criticism and threats made online.
The Bigger Picture March slated for 4 p.m. on Muse Lawn has been rescheduled several times due to the pandemic as well as bad weather. A group of student organizations, including the Black Student Alliance and the NAACP, planned the peaceful protest in the wake of the national turmoil over race relations and police brutality that was reignited in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.
Devante Mosely, a junior media production major and one of the event’s main organizers, said Wednesday that the event is for students and faculty only, and will include a march on campus as well as some speakers talking about systematic racism in the U.S., as well as police brutality and the hardships the Black community often faces on a daily basis.
“This is something we felt strongly about. All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter as well,” he said. “We’ve planned a peaceful event. That has always been one of our main goals.”
The event caught the attention of many in the community after the PC Patriot — a weekly newspaper based in Pulaski — published an article about it on Monday. The article contained information that university President Brian Hemphill asked “all RU students to participate in a Sept. 19 march and rally in Radford sponsored by the Black Lives Matter organization” in an email he sent to the campus community.
However, while Hemphill asks that students denounce racism and to report discrimination when they see it, his letter does not ask anyone to participate in Saturday’s event, nor does it say that the event is being held by the Black Lives Matter organization.
He did write that Black lives matter and that he is excited to see those who want to participate on Saturday as he too would be in attendance.
Hemphill also wrote that he faced racism throughout his adolescence into adulthood. He did not elaborate on that in the letter.
When contacted , PC Patriot editor Mike Williams said it was his interpretation that Hemphill’s message “strongly suggested” that students participate in the event.
He went on to write an editor’s note that acknowledged that the event was not run by the group and changed the headline, but did not change the aforementioned line in his story.
The Facebook page where Williams’ article was posted received a litany of disparaging, misleading and even some racist remarks about the event. Additionally, many questioned how the university could hold such an event safely when there have been so many positive COVID-19 cases on its campus.
A Facebook video posted by Radford resident Jody Pyles was viewed more than 18,000 times as of Wednesday evening. In the video Pyles says Hemphill should not be supporting Black Lives Matter as the president of a public university. That movement is rooted in “Marxist doctrine,” Pyles said. He did not offer additional details about that statement.
Pyles also said Wednesday that even though the event is not sponsored by the Black Lives Matter movement, a logo of a fist on the event poster makes him think otherwise. He also believes the protest could turn violent, citing other instances of violence during protests in the U.S.
He said he believes racism affects all people in the U.S., and referenced his time as a white cop in a Black neighborhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as his evidence for that, in addition to the discrimination Irish people faced when coming to the U.S.
“Slavery is something that’s happened to people all over the world at one point or another. It’s a scar on this country’s back. ... I have scars on me as well. I’ve learned from them and they’ve made me stronger,” he said.
In his video, Pyles also wonders how the university can hold an event when the city currently has a ban on gathering of more than 50 people, with the exception of religious ceremonies, weddings, funerals, day cares, sporting events or large-scale employers.
At the end of his video filmed on a sidewalk near the Radford campus, Pyles said he “personally believes the citizens of Radford should show up and make some noise. Let them know that this is not allowed. We’re not going to stand by and watch this Marxist indoctrination happen in our city.”
Additionally, 11th District state Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County — a candidate for the Republican party’s nomination for governor — expressed her displeasure with the rally on her Senate Facebook page.
She also condemned Hemphill for “asking these impressionable minds to follow this Marxist led movement,” before she denounced racism.
“Under my administration as Governor of Virginia I would have a 1-800 number for students and parents to report any sort of agendas that promotes this sort of hate and division. I would also call for the defunding of any state university that participated in such behavior!” she wrote.
University spokeswoman Caitlyn Scaggs wrote in a statement that the school “does not have any comment regarding individuals that are attempting to divide our campus and our community.”
“We are focused on supporting our students by fueling intellectual discovery and fostering supportive communities. These are founding principles and critical components of our teaching, research, and service mission,” she wrote.
Scaggs said the university has a comprehensive plan in place to make sure the event is safe and follows all safety protocols regarding the use of masks and social distancing. She said students and faculty who do not adhere to those rules will not be allowed to participate.
Hemphill responded to the criticism of the event in another email sent to the campus early Wednesday afternoon.
“The Bigger Picture March and Rally is not an external event. It is not being led or organized by a national organization or anyone who is not affiliated with the University,” he wrote. “It is an event that is being led and organized by our students who have a desire and right to express their beliefs and perspectives in accordance with the University’s Free Speech Policy and the founding principles of our country.
“The students have committed to do so in a peaceful and respectful manner, and the University will have measures in place to support their commitment.”
Scaggs also noted that circles are being painted on the quads where the event will be held to ensure social distancing measures are followed and said the health department was consulted to ensure the event is safe from exacerbating the number of positive COVID cases in Radford.
City of Radford Police Chief Jeff Dodson confirmed Wednesday his officers will be at the event at the request of the university police department. In view of the recent controversy surrounding the event, Scaggs wrote that the school is working collaboratively with local, regional, and state entities to ensure necessary support is both in place and available for this event.
She estimates that roughly 150 people will be attending the march.
Mosely said he didn’t fear for his safety despite some of the hateful rhetoric that has been shared on social media.
“Not everyone is not going to agree with us and that’s OK,” he said. “It didn’t really faze me.”
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