by Kate Shunney
A group of protestors occupied the sidewalks along the edge of Berkeley Springs State Park last Wednesday, June 3 for roughly three hours, joining a nationwide movement to speak out about racial inequities in the U.S.
The event, dubbed “Justice for Floyd,” was organized through Facebook by local resident Henry Gill-Newton. At its largest, the crowd of protestors included more than 100 people holding signs and chanting slogans.
George Floyd was a black man who died in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes despite Floyd’s pleas that he could not breathe.
Protests have been sparked nationwide over the incident and other recent killings of black citizens. In some cities, the protests have been accompanied by fire, vandalism and looting, with some violent clashes between members of the public and police.
Last week’s event in Berkeley Springs officially started at 6 p.m. and ended at 8:30 p.m. No violence or clashes took place between protestors or any members of the public.
Local law enforcement officers and State Park officials were in attendance as observers, but rarely interacted with the crowd. At several points in the event, including during a speech from Gill-Newton from the park gazebo, protestors thanked officers for their work protecting the community.
Gill-Newton said one of the reforms that protestors wanted to see was better training for officers.
“We need comprehensive training for a job that has particularly high risks for all,” he said.
“Thank you to law enforcement for their work, for protecting us and allowing us to be here today.”
Gill-Newton said he saw the public event in Berkeley Springs as a way to involve local people in a national conversation.
“It shows that we’re all allies to the current dialogue to what’s going on in the nation,” he said. “We need to start educating ourselves about our own privilege.”
Laurie Methvin said she was “really happy” to see the turnout at the park.
“I’m here to demonstrate my belief that we aren’t addressing the root causes of racism in our country,” she said. Methvin said she recently saw a racial slur on a sign along the river in Morgan County, and had to explain that to the young people with her.
Jordan Littrell said she attended “protesting police brutality” and to “show support for black lives.”
Littrell, who is 17, said several of her fellow high school students were holding signs at the event.
Ashley Briscoe is the mother of two bi-racial daughters who attend school locally.
“That’s why I’m here, because growing up in a town with all whites is hard,” Briscoe said.
She said she wanted her children to have a voice and to see that people care about them and their lives.
A protestor who only identified herself with a first name said she had attended protests in Martinsburg as well as Berkeley Springs. She grew up locally, but lives in Berkeley County now.
“We do have an issue in our country. We’re going to be on the right side of history,” she said of protestors.
Jenna Hansroth said she came to the protest to educate herself.
She said her work at the state level with the local food movement had reinforced the reality that racism affects many aspects of life, including agriculture and social interactions. She recalled an incident when a black male acquaintance said he wouldn’t ride an elevator alone with her because other might see it as inappropriate.
“On social media, some people are still surprised that racism is a thing,” she said.
Berkeley Springs resident Oduwa was drumming and chanting at the Wednesday protest. She said protesting is a “very valid and obvious way” to make public demands for change.
Town of Bath council members Rick Weber and Rose Jackson were present at the event. They both serve on the town’s Public Safety committee, which oversees the police department. Jackson said her committee had not had discussions with officers about interacting with people of color, but that could be a topic in the future.
Police Chief Tony Link said he and his officers are taught to treat every person with the same respect during a stop.
Sheriff K.C. Bohrer said officer training is very thorough and teaches law enforcement officers to interact with all individuals with respect.
Handwritten signs at the protest varied, reading “Black Lives Matter,” messages about social change, “Stronger Together” and quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.