BLACKSBURG — Several hundred people on Monday marched through Blacksburg, calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism in an echo of protests nationwide sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The mostly young and racially mixed crowd gathered at Henderson Lawn on Virginia Tech’s campus about noon and walked through the streets to the Blacksburg Police Department.
Demonstrators chanted “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” before kneeling and taking a moment of silence for Floyd and for others who have been killed recently by police. Many wore masks in keeping with public health protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think there’s systematic oppression against African Americans in this country,” said AJ Hampton, a 25-year-old graduate assistant at Florida State University who lives in Blacksburg. “This is just a start.”
Hampton was one of several organizers of the grassroots event, which was advertised on social media and steadily drew people throughout the afternoon.
Signs carried messages including “One RACE — the human race,” “White silence = violence!” and “If you are tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired people are of experiencing it.”
“People are deeply in pain. People are in rage,” said Chris Sanchez, 31. “There’s a deep tradition of the black freedom struggle.”
Sanchez, who grew up in Chicago, moved to the area six years ago to start a church, he said. He now serves as executive director of the nonprofit Christiansburg Institute Inc., an organization that promotes and preserves the history of the first high school in Southwest Virginia to educate freed slaves.
“I’m here for the people,” Sanchez said. “I’m here to represent my people.”
Protesters marched across Tech’s campus, through the streets of downtown and back to the police station, where people took turns at a microphone calling for change.
One speaker said more needed to be done by Tech’s administration to address racism and noted that no top administrators were present at the march.
Tech President Tim Sands on Sunday released a joint statement with Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity, about the recent police killings and entrenched racial disparities apparent in COVID-19 data.
“So what do we do? What actions can we take? While there is a place for protests, we must do more than protest. We have an opportunity as individuals and in our own communities to construct a microcosm of the society in which we wish to live,” they wrote.
In coming weeks, the Office for Inclusion and Diversity along with other groups will “identify specific action steps to work for sustainable transformation,” their statement said. “We hope you will join in those efforts to help make our world a better place for all.”
Throughout the march, police officers held up traffic but otherwise stood on the sidelines. Police didn’t report any incidents or arrests.
“As much as we have anger toward them as a whole, they made it happen today,” Hampton said of the police. “They kept us safe.”
Dayna Chinnery, a 33-year-old from Blacksburg, spoke to the crowd about racism in her own family, adding a personal story to multiple calls to those gathered to call out racism when it occurs.
“I’m mixed,” she said afterward. “My own mother called me the n-word.”
Chinnery said she showed up in part to show love for all the black men in her family.
“It’s sad what happened to George Floyd. It just saddens me,” Chinnery said. “All the hate and everything’s just got to stop.”
Cadasa Strange listened to the crowd of speakers and held a painted sign that featured a raised fist.
“I am black and transgendered, and I feel that there’s multiple fights we have to fight,” said Strange, who described being exhausted from watching videos of people being killed by police.
“I’m tired of the violence.”