Young people advocate for bigger goals and lasting change

6/18/2020, 6 p.m.
Downtown echoed with the sound of cheers last Saturday as more than a hundred young people and their families gathered ...
Nelson Foster, 4, participates at the RVA Youth Rally last Saturday with his grandmother, Rita Flowers. The rally drew young people and families to the statue of Maggie L. Walker at Broad and Adams streets in Downtown. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Downtown echoed with the sound of cheers last Saturday as more than a hundred young people and their families gathered for the RVA Youth Rally at the Maggie L. Walker statue and shared their ideas for building a better future.

Organized by Makayla White, 13, a student at Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School, and Stephanie Younger, 18, a leader with RISE For Youth, the rally featured a mix of song, dance and collective strategizing.

Poetry and performance stood alongside speeches stressing the importance of sustaining the energy of recent protests and holding local leaders accountable for creating real change.

“We want to voice our opinions,” Ms. White said, stressing the need to include young people in the dialogues and debates spawned by protests over police violence and racial inequity following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “This is for all the kids here today.”

Many of the signs and posters held by children and teens proclaimed, “We Are Your Future.”

The rally, organized with help from partner organizations including Art 180, Community 50/50 and Justice and Reformation for Marcus-David Peters, was just the latest effort from local youths against racism and white supremacy in the Richmond area. Last week, a rally at Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico County attracted students, parents and others who criticized racial inequalities in education. Students at the school also will hold a dialogue on changing the school’s mascot from the “Rebels.”

The rally, one of three on Saturday, ended a little under an hour before about a 1,000 participated in the 5000 Man March from the Lee statue on Monument Avenue, followed by a Creative Protest at the monument.

The 5000 Man March featured several speakers, including Tavares Floyd of Richmond, a cousin of the late Mr. Floyd who serves as the council liaison to City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson. The event, while larger, drew criticism on social media because of the involvement of Richmond Police and corporate vendors.

The youth rally was more goal oriented, with several speakers talking about the need for transformative action and policy, particularly divesting funds from police departments and reinvesting in community services.

“I stand for defunding the police and investing in conflict resolution and health professionals and mentors who stand by black youths,” Ms. Young said.

Speakers also advocated for creation of an independent civilian review board of police misconduct and a re-examination of the death of Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher who, naked, unarmed and experiencing what has been described as a mental crisis, was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer in May 2018.

Many of the ideas supported by speakers echoed recent demands from the Peters family, who have continued to criticize the actions of local officials in response to the killing. In addition to creating a citizen review board of police, the family also has pushed for a “Marcus Alert” that could require mental health professionals to respond first, instead of police, to emergency calls involving someone undergoing a mental health crisis.

Mayor Stoney and some members of City Council have noted his support for both reforms.

Other groups, including the ACLU of Virginia, Richmond for All and Southerners on New Ground, also are seeking greater accountability for police who used tear gas and pepper spray on peaceful protesters in the city. A coalition of 27 organizations also are calling for a special General Assembly session on police reform.

“This violence cannot be cured with diversity workshops,” said Yasmine Jaaber, 16, of Chesterfield County. “It cannot be cured with body cams and regulations and kneeling with those who are eager to hurt us.”

Ms. Jaaber and several others were critical of the wide-ranging “culture of racism” that goes beyond law enforcement and is “so rampant so many people don’t even notice it anymore.” It runs the gamut, from cultural appropriation to mass incarceration and wealth inequality and perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline, several speakers said.

They also underscored the need for African-American trauma and comfort to be centered and considered, for white allies to address the complicity of their own communities in oppressive systems, and the need for self-care and inclusivity among those marginalized by those systems.

They also urged people to maintain the momentum around racial equality past the rally itself.

“As soon as we let our foot off the gas, things have a way of going back to the way they were,” said Richmond poet Douglas Powell, also known as Roscoe Burnems, “We cannot let that happen this time around.”

A BLM Children’s March is scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, June 20, from the Richmond Children’s Museum on West Broad Street to the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.