West Virginians across the state came together in protest over the weekend, joining thousands across the country demanding action after the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, both at the hands of police.
People gathered in Huntington, Charleston, Morgantown, Parkersburg, Fairmont, Beckley and elsewhere, from the Eastern Panhandle to the southern coalfields. There was even a “virtual rally” Sunday on Facebook for those who wanted to participate but maintain social distancing.
In Charleston, hundreds of people, many wearing face masks, gathered outside City Hall and the police department Sunday afternoon, chanting, “I can’t breathe,” Floyd’s last words that also called up the 2014 death of Eric Garner, a black man who died in a police chokehold in New York City.
“[The police] have this mentality of ‘us against them,’” said Mike, one black protestor in Charleston, who declined to provide a last name. “They have to realize, we’re the taxpayers. We employ them. Their job is to protect and serve, not to intimidate and murder,” he said.
“There should’ve been 10 times as many people out here today,” said Jennifer Moore, a white woman from Charleston. “Where are they at? White people can’t keep sitting at home, saying ‘Oh, that’s terrible. That’s awful,’ and then that be the end of it.”
The crowd continued to grow as a few hundred people stayed chanting outside City Hall for hours, leaving at one point to march around the block.
Floyd, a 46-year-old bouncer and security guard, died outside a Minneapolis community store on Monday, May 25, after a police officer pushed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Taylor was a 26-year-old medical worker in Louisville, Kentucky, who police shot in March in her own apartment.
Although the rallies were organized in response to police violence elsewhere, West Virginia has had its share of alleged discrimination and abuse from law enforcement. Last fall, the Charleston Police Department’s policy for use of force came under fire after a young black woman was hospitalized following her arrest by two police officers.
The woman, Freda Gilmore, sued the city in December. The case is still pending in federal court, with trial set for January 2021.
Charleston Police Chief James Hunt said Monday he understands “the community has a reason to be mad.”
“I along with the officers… know that that officer in Minneapolis was in the wrong. We support what our protestors are behind, and we let our protestors know that,” said Hunt, who was not chief at the time of the use-of-force incident. “If they have ideas or grievances directed toward the Charleston police department, I’ll gladly listen.”
Black Lives Matter West Virginia, which in 2017 led a protest outside the state Capitol following the deadly White Supremacy rally that year in Charlottesville, Va., has stated that the group is not coordinating its own events, but members are monitoring those throughout the state and sharing resources.
The organization said it’s collecting face masks and organizing funds for bond and mutual aid, in case the largely peaceful events result in arrests.
Protest organizers continue to receive threats of violence. Men armed with rifles and handguns were on the sidelines of a Parkersburg protest Sunday night, in an apparent counter protest. According to the Wood County Sheriff’s Office, there were no confrontations between the two groups. In Martinsburg, police say they're investigating after shots were fired during a Sunday protest. One man with a gun showed up to the Charleston event on Sunday, but police escorted him away from the area.
These gatherings come as most medical experts continue to advocate against large, in-person activities due to the coronavirus, especially as data shows how it disproportionately affects minority populations.
According to data Monday from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, African Americans accounted for nearly 7 percent of the state’s positive cases, a community making up a little more than 4 percent of the state’s total population. Other minority groups made up 15 percent of the state’s positive cases.
Health officials also have reported black West Virginians are hospitalized more than whites for the coronavirus, and they experience symptoms more often.
In Wheeling, WVPB reporters noted little room for social distancing. A sidewalk protest swelled onto the street in front of the Wheeling police department and city building. Once the police closed the street where protests were occurring, some room was provided for social distancing for those that wanted it. But most of the crowd stayed compact, circling around various speakers who explained their experiences to the crowd.
One virtual rally between black leaders, elected officials, candidates for office and advocacy groups allowed more for social distancing.
Jerry Carr, Jr., of the Morgantown NAACP stated during that rally this was the first time he could recall not taking to the streets in protest.
“We cannot wait centuries to solve this problem,” Carr said. “What has to happen is immediate action. … Even the people who don’t think they’re impacted, they’re definitely feeling the effects of all this.”
Several more protests are set for this week, including an event in Morgantown on Tuesday.
Reporters Roxy Todd, Corey Knollinger and Glynis Board contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included protests in Athens, Mercer County. There's no evidence there were any rallies there over the weekend.