Montgomery County government officials and community leaders led a forum calling to better race and police relations Tuesday, June 2.
The forum attracted hundreds of community members to Municipal Park where community members silently professed “Black lives matter” or “vote in November” by holding up posters throughout the forum.
“Having our elected officials and our law enforcement folks be so eager to be in this conversation and to denounce the killing of Mr. Floyd and how that was done, it’s just overwhelming,” said Penny Franklin, committee member of Dialogue on race. “In many places, folks would not sit and be in conversation about Black people being killed because it's so uncomfortable.”
The forum was hosted by Montgomery County law enforcement leadership and Dialogue on Race, a group that aims to “examine racial issues articulated by the African-American community in Montgomery County, Virginia, and then develops and implements solutions.”
Dialogue on Race’s steering members Franklin and Wornie Reed explained the history of police brutality and the kind of work that needs to be done to diminish racial bias and police relations in Montgomery County and America to the crowd.
Reed told community members that they need to “question the appropriateness of police officers' so-called ‘reasonable fear.’ The flexible definition of reasonable fear as offered by the court have permitted prosecutors to claim that police had reasonable fears of cars driving away, unarmed people running away and even people with their hands up.”
Reed referenced Graham v. Connor. Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist's decision in Graham v. Connor said, “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene … rather than with 20/20 hindsight.” Reed believes this sentence “protects the right of police officers and not black citizens.”
“I was talking to my son the other day who is a marine,” Reed said. “I said, ‘Did you sign up to lay your life on the line for citizens?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘That means your life cannot be as important as citizens’?’ He said, ‘That’s right.’ I said, ‘Police are in the same category.’”
Law enforcement leaders of Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Virginia Tech spoke after Franklin and Reed. They emphasized how comradery between law enforcement and the community is the best way to overcome “treacherous time.” Law enforcement leaders explained how they work with Dialogue on Race to understand the racial bias, barriers of African Americans being implemented into the police force, African Americans’ perspective of the force and more. They gave examples of the work in the community they have done like the books and badges program and gathering data on police stops.
“Dialogue on Race has been a driving force for the last 10 years, but without that I cannot begin to ever imagine anything like that happening here,” said Blacksburg Sheriff Hank Partin. “Our people are the best of the best; they’re the best trained. We hire the best folks in the world. We have caring people in our departments.”
Local government officials, including the mayors of Christiansburg and Blacksburg, town council members, and representative Chris Hurst, gave messages of support and reassurance to Montgomery County’s African American community. Local leaders also took the opportunity to condemn the actions against protesters of government officials and law enforcement in other cities.
“I am privileged. We’re here today because our complacency has been shattered,'' said Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith. “Neither I or any other person of privilege can justify silence anymore. We who are gathered here today are wounded – all of us. We are damaged by the inglorious marginalization of people of color in this country and even in this county.”
Blacksburg local Rachel Handres was happy with how the forum went, but still felt as if there was more that could have been said.
“My main objection was wanting (to know about) more things that I can do – more than standing with a sign,” Handres said. “I’m proud of living in Blacksburg, however we may live in a nice little place, but there's gotta be something.”
Franklin said community members can help lessen racial bias by keeping their friends, family and community leaders accountable. “There is no reason why can’t folks be questioning our elected officials,” Franklin said.
Other community members felt grateful for the conversation and for the Montgomery County leaders’ acknowledgement of this problem.
“This just isn’t about us,” said Thierry Yanga, Virginia Tech rising senior. “Just because we’re having peaceful protests here, just because there isn’t as much discrimination or racism around the town of Blacksburg as much as the rest of the world doesn't mean that we should just ignore what others are going through. I’m living well, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fight for my brother.”