A group of 20 local activists with Black Action Now and Justice RVA joined the condemnation of police brutality in Baltimore last week. In doing so, members say they also invigorated their mission in Richmond.
“Baltimore has inspired us to follow through on effective change,” says Ashleigh Shackelford, lead organizer of Black Action Now. “So we’re going out making sure people can hear us, by all means possible.”
Both groups have earned a reputation for in-your-face tactics and show no sign of letting up. But the focus locally is different from Baltimore.
“It’s not like I’m expecting a Freddie Gray incident in Richmond,” Shackelford says. “But we’re facing similar issues, with gentrification and food deserts, and I believe that energetic demonstrations will prove effective here.”
Bystanders have derided the activists’ staging of die-ins, traffic-stopping picket lines and City Council meeting disruptions. “If you’re annoying the shit out of [people], then they’re going to dismiss you outright,” one online commenter posted, attracting more than a few thumbs up.
Local protesters took their message to restaurant and gallery owners at the First Fridays Art Walk, touring and reading a statement about connections between protests in Baltimore and Richmond.
“When we went into Comfort, the staff yelled, ‘No one cares about that!,” says Camille Rudney, who supports local protest groups, but considers herself an independent activist. “They shoved us out.”
“Many people think that protesters are trying to ruin their day,” adds Danielle Gaines, a member of Black Action Now. “Instead of listening to what’s happening in the community around them, people begin thinking, ‘No, this is inconvenient to me.’”
Shackelford says events in Baltimore taught her to not fear this kind of backlash. She says she feels more certain that onlookers eventually will question their preconceptions.
Protesters in Baltimore didn’t back down, Shackelford says, even when the vibes turned bad. “When we stayed out past curfew, militarized security started crawling around,” she says. “And you had to wonder, ‘Who looks more threatening here?’”
By Friday, there was a turnabout, with the announcement that six offers would face criminal charges related to Gray’s arrest and death. Protesters in Baltimore cheered.
Local activists concede that quiet dialogue can be revolutionary, especially with politicians and policy-makers. Hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter also have a place, they say — but that nothing changes by conversation alone.
“In terms of what I’m hoping to bring back to Richmond is numbers,” Shackelford says. “Power in numbers. When it’s just a few protesters, it’s easy to use scare tactics to disperse people, or discourage them with harsh talk.”
“Making people take note of your presence,” she says — “that’s not a self-defeating action.”