Protesters elicit strong reactions. By design, they interrupt life’s rhythms and force people to confront what’s happening outside their bubble.
Freedom Riders, sit-in participants and demonstrators of the 1960s are revered today as heroes of the civil rights movement. A plaque marks the site of a Richmond sit-in Thalhimer’s Department store. But a Gallup poll from 1961 suggests the majority of Americans disagreed with the methods, even if they agreed with the end goals.
Does change happen without disruption?
President Donald Trump would say no. And so would these Richmond protesters and organizers, who are standing against his version of change. They bring visibility with demonstrations, rallies and marches. They energize the base. They beget promises and platitudes from politicians, who assume, for every shivering sign-holder, that there are 100 voters at home who agree.
And it seems more people than ever are turning out with signs in hand.
These aren’t paid protesters — nor is protesting all they do, they say. They see their efforts as pieces of larger strategies — amplified, outdoor voices in a chorus of resistance. Here are seven people in Richmond coming to a sidewalk or street near you.
- Scott Elmquist
- Muslim Ban and Border Wall Protest, Jan. 29, VCU
Gulmira Elham, 20
Student, Virginia Commonwealth University
"What made me resist that day was that as a first-generation immigrant, I was scared and felt abandoned.
"I came here five years ago with my siblings. These five years we’ve been through a lot, since we were really young back then and had to be on our own in this totally different environment. I’ve sacrificed so much to get to where I am today. Therefore, I was really sad [about] the fact I might be deported for nothing and all my efforts would go away.
"After the event, I found hope and had belief in people for all of us. Also I learned that Muslims are not alone and we are all in this together.
"Media should post more positive things about people and encourage people to resist towards racism and bigotry. Through social media, people will learn how to stand up for themselves and others. Therefore, using positive images is really important.
"I’m planning to graduate college and go to grad school to become a counselor therapist to help people and show them Muslims are loving and caring human beings. People don’t interact with Muslim people a lot — they just see them on TV. People should go out, talk to Muslims and become friends with them, instead of staying at home."
- Scott Elmquist
- Richmond Grabs Back Protest, Nov. 12, Downtown Streets
Jafar Flowers, 21
Student, Virginia Commonwealth University
"I read a speech called, 'I Want a Dyke for President' by Zoe Leonard. I had read the poem somewhere online. And Mykki Blanco, who [came to Strange Matter on March 20], redid it as a video on 'Dazed and Confused' and that inspired me to see a queer black person give that speech, so I wanted to do the same thing in real time.
"I just really wanted to go out and spread positivity. I believe there are certain people that are going to be affected by the Trump administration the most. … I think the people who actually never had a president like them in the first place, I thought it was important to read something that would speak to those people — for them to feel loved and not excluded. I just wanted to share part of myself, knowing those people would be present.
"I think me giving my opinion on the effectiveness of the protest is unnecessary. My answer is about moving forward, using joy as resistance in any way possible — I think that will empower the words and voices of marginalized people.
"Any way they can find to use joy, or organize with other groups, relying on community we can move forward. There’re probably different methods of organizing, protesting or rallying but I can’t make a decision on what’s best. It’s up to queer people of color to really protect each other and try to organize in any way possible with each other.
"The people who our president might affect the most need to use joy as a defense."
- Scott Elmquist
- Sanctuary City Rally Feb. 13, City Hall
Carolina Velez, 37
Organizer, ICE out of RVA
"For me, to be an organizer is part of someone’s identity. It’s not a job. It’s something you do because you’re affected directly by the issues that you organize around. In my case, it’s part of a daily fight.
"I have never seen it as needing to convince people. I’ve seen organizing as a space of popular, political education. When you bring people together that are directly affected by some issue, and you open the space to share their personal experience, from there it starts. In fact, we resist every day.
"That’s a challenge I have every day, is telling people their privileges and their unique position don’t make them superior. Most people have never experienced being undocumented. They never fear [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. ICE is never going to come to their door. Their voice should not have the weight of the people that are suffering every day.
"The minimization of rallying, protesting, organizing, serves the status quo, serves the state. These actions have served the black movement.
"But Rosa Parks didn’t give the freaking chair because that day she woke up tired of giving up her chair. Every single action in social movement is connected to a bigger goal. And when you’re connected to a bigger goal, you have to recognize that there are many people, masses of people against something that is unjust.
"The street is a public space. It’s built by the people. And individualistic cultures have taken that away. It’s not natural to build identity inside doors. The history of human beings, building identity happens out there, surrounded by people. When you go out, it’s the most beautiful symbolic thing, because you have to choose a place.
"For example, we chose the federal building [for our Jan. 30 rally] for a reason. Undocumented people built that court in 2008, and then they were raided. ICE came with the help of the Richmond police. People were running like rats, hiding in the air ducts of the building. ICE took away all the people they could. The rally brings the memory of something that traumatized us.
"The mayoral directive [on sanctuary cities] is symbolic — it’s beautiful words. When you go to the ground, what happens within the city is totally different.
"I knew that there are many racist people around me every day — you develop a scanner, you feel it. But when Trump started running, I got these racist messages everywhere. Someone hearing my name and saying, “You’re in America, we pronounce it this way.” Now people feel entitled to tell you how criminal you are, how horrible you are and how you should not be in “our country.”
"Everything was not great under Obama. The deportations were horrible, every day. What I tell the allies coming to the meetings is: 'I’m not here to motivate you. If tomorrow the president changes, are you going to come to the meeting?'
"But if they’ve thought about white supremacy, how the color of their skin is privileged, and they need to do this because it is the rent that they have to pay for being here, yeah, let’s organize."
- Scott Elmquist
- Richmond Transit Rally, Feb. 13, City Hall
Omari Al-Qadaffi, 36
Organizer, Leaders of the New South
"It started when all this stuff with the rebel flag was happening in South Carolina. I had the idea to take the Confederate flag and put Afro-centric colors on it. It was a way to take the symbol of hate and empower us with it. And at the same time, it’s confronting whoever would not like their flag to be messed with, confronting white supremacy.
"It grew into activism. Last summer I started documenting the conditions in apartments. The Leaders of the New South community council for housing is where we confront those types of issues. Then I got into the transit stuff. I do a lot of research, reading, attending meetings to establish relationships with other organizations. If there’s a mobilization effort, I knock on doors.
"I’m from Church Hill, and I live in the Wickham area. I also work part-time selling things on eBay. I don’t make a lot of money, but I’m not very materialistic. I live really simply.
"Right now, in Richmond and nationally, there’s a lack of effective community input going into policy-making. We know that it’s important for us to be a part of the conversation — particularly low-income and black, disenfranchised people. It’s necessary to be part of the conversation so we don’t continue to have decisions being made by people who are not negatively impacted by the policies, or aren’t really part of the community, or are over-represented as a part of the community.
"One challenge is the feeling of disenfranchisement and disregard by the community. When you engage people, there’s a good percentage that already have the mindset of: 'Oh, [leaders are] gonna do whatever they want to do anyway. It doesn’t matter.'
"That’s why it’s important to me to let people know the small victories along the way, like we were able to save [bus] coverage to Fairfield and Oakwood. If we do stand together and if we do speak up, change is possible.
"The biggest challenge is getting [people in leadership roles] to go against the grain, or go against the status quo, or to disagree with their colleagues, like with the transit plan, they said, 'Oh, you guys are great, community input, this is great, but I don’t want to hold up the vote, so I’m going to go ahead and vote against you.'
"When people know that there’s going to be a rally, they’re more willing to come out. It’s kind of dry to tell people we’re going out to City Council. That’s why I think rallies are effective, to supplement the actual policy influence."
- Scott Elmquist
- Opposing Corey Stewart’s End Sanctuary Cities Rally, March 4, Capitol Square
Dustin King, 34
Nonprofit executive director, Richmond Conexiones
"There are many undocumented folks who call Richmond home who I love and consider family. Anyone who threatens them, whether it’s [gubernatorial candidate] Corey Stewart, Donald Trump, or a police officer, is an enemy of mine.
"I was protesting that day not only to tell a racist politician to get out of my city, but also as an organizer in ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] out of RVA, a coalition of immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and allies that want sanctuary for all people in the city of Richmond.
"We believe that defense against racism and hate is currently a local fight. We organized the rally that day to demand that Mayor [Levar] Stoney and other local politicians put policies in place to protect all residents that are threatened in our city. … The point of the protest was to let Corey Stewart, who has an explicitly racist and violent agenda toward immigrants, know that we don’t accept hate, violence and intolerance here in Richmond. We had more people than they did there and we were a hell of a lot louder.
"So I think he got that message so in that way it was successful. … By sanctuary city, we mean all people feel safe in their community, specifically from law enforcement.
"Resistance for white people is now more than showing up at the occasional rally. We have to use the resources our privilege has brought us to fund organizations that rely on the leadership of folks that are directly affected, such as Southerners on New Ground and ICE out of RVA."
- Scott Elmquist
- Women’s March on Monument, Jan. 14, Monument Avenue
Rebecca Keel, 24
"I stay involved by connecting organization, people and resources.
"[I was marching] to be in solidarity with the mass of women’s marches happening all around the world. This was not a protest, however in the words of local historian Free Egunfemi, 'a gathering to clarify a unified declaration from many of Richmond’s interlinked communities.'
"This was a rally for justice and resistance to tyranny. It was effective in bringing together many women and families, most of privilege — white, middle class, etc. — to learn about the grassroots organizing that has been underway for many, many years now.
"This was a gathering to get people plugged into the existing work, through self reflection, understanding your own privileges and the stake you play in deconstructing white supremacy in Richmond VA, former Capital of the Confederacy.
"I hope to see more white women, because that’s what the rally mostly consisted of, specifically organize their communities and families. For the people of color who attended, I hope you felt supported in your justice work and lives." — Interviewed through email.
- Scott Elmquist
- Save Our Health Care Rally, Jan. 15, Capitol Square
Ashley Hawkins, 31
"I believe health care is a human right and that this administration is a threat to our civil liberties, security and democracy.
"The [Affordable Care Act] rally brought our community together in solidarity and strength. As I spoke while holding my newborn daughter, I locked eyes with the mother of a young child in a wheelchair who was cheering me on. We connected as mothers worried for our children’s health. This gave me strength and commitment to continue working for health care, because it is not just myself and my family that need it.
"Peaceful protests connect communities, display solidarity, and convey excitement and optimism in a time when many people are feeling very frightened by the state of our nation. They are also our right — and I would argue, our duty — as American citizens and in a time when the rights of so many are being threatened and curtailed.
"And perhaps most importantly, they make a difference. If protests are successful and sustained, they do affect policy. After impassioned constituents shouted him down at town halls, [U.S. Rep.] Dave Brat voted against the new “wealthcare” bill — the ill-conceived American Healthcare Act.
"Stay local, focus on a few key issues you’re passionate about, and donate to charities that align with your principles. Read the news but make sure your sources are legit. Make sure they cite real sources. Be skeptical of things that sound too good to be true and fit your own biases too perfectly.
"We are being confronted with a new outrage every day, and it’s easy to get exhausted and feel defeated. Give yourself a break and don’t get overwhelmed. Connect with your friends, your family, your loved ones and make activism fun. And vote. Vote for everything! Get other people to vote! Local, state, national, midterm, special elections. Vote. Vote. Vote!"