Protests come to Isle of Wight

Published 4:10 pm Monday, June 29, 2020

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The death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers on May 25 has continued to spark nationwide protests nearly one month later, including one at the Isle of Wight County government complex last Friday.

Friday evening, a crowd of more than 100 led by Rushmere native Rosa Holmes-Turner marched on Isle of Wight’s historic former courthouse at Monument Circle. Turner’s anger over the treatment of Blacks by law enforcement and the justice system, however, hits far closer to home than Minneapolis.

“I was an entrepreneur daycare center owner right here in Isle of Wight County, Smithfield,” she told the crowd. “I had a white police officer … she worked in Portsmouth, came and knocked on my door and said, ‘Ms. Turner,’ she was crying. She said, ‘I got 10 people in my mother’s house right now trying to shut you down.’”

Turner did, in fact, end up shutting the doors to her daycare, which through the years had taught roughly 300 children, 80% of whom were white. This was during the 1980s, Turner clarified. It shuttered, she said, after she had received a letter from an Isle of Wight commonwealth’s attorney, which had alleged that one of Turner’s few Black students had vandalized someone’s house and had threatened Turner with arrest if she did not close down.

Another speaker, Dontae Finney of the Greater M.E.N. Initiative, began his remarks by admitting that eight years ago, he had been arrested and jailed.

“I came home and I changed my life,” Finney said. “I became a licensed and ordained evangelist … but two weeks ago, according to the Isle of Wight Sheriff’s Department, I’m still a drug dealer.”

Finney then spoke on economic and residential disparities between Isle of Wight’s Black and white populations.

“When we stand together with one loud solidified voice we might just see some more black businesses on Main Street,” Finney said. “We might just see some more affordable housing for those who can’t jump into a $300,000, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. The ones that can’t fit into those, they should not be suppressed into lower levels of living … they should not be placed into caged-in apartment complexes. It’s time for those to come down. We are not animals! We are humans!”

Derek Boone, who co-organized the protest with Turner, also drew attention to Isle of Wight’s recreational opportunities, or lack thereof, for Black people, citing statistics about the percentage of Black athletes in several pro sports leagues.

“Seventy-four-point-four percent of Blacks play in the NBA,” Boone said. “Seventy percent of Blacks play in the NFL versus 10% of Blacks playing in Major League Soccer. Why do we have several soccer fields? … What are we saying to our youth that are interested in youth sports if we are not prioritizing those sports we are most likely to be involved in?”

“I can’t breathe knowing 80% of disciplinary action was taken out on Black kids while the school population is 30% at Westside Elementary,” Boone added. “I can start to breathe a little better when we’re no longer considered troublemakers, robbers, identical to the person of interest. I can start to breathe a little better when we have more fields for football, more indoor facilities for our youth basketball sports.”

Boone’s “I can’t breathe” remarks are in reference to Floyd’s last words as Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin and three others pinned him to the ground. Chauvin, who was shown on video pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, has since been fired and charged criminally, as have the other three former officers involved in the incident. Chauvin reportedly faces second-degree murder charges, while the other three face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

“With the continued senseless murders of running while Black, sleeping while black, breathing while Black or bird watching while Black, when is enough enough?” asked Valerie Butler, president of Isle of Wight’s local NAACP chapter and an elected member of Smithfield’s Town Council. “As Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It has reached a pressure point where that foot on George Floyd’s neck has been felt by all African Americans.”

It was no coincidence that the protest that evening coincided with the newly declared state holiday of Juneteenth, which is the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. It marks the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, the last of the former Confederate states to abolish slavery, finally heard that the Civil War had ended, and learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had made them free nearly two years earlier.

Isle of Wight County Sheriff James Clarke Jr. and representatives from neighboring law enforcement jurisdictions, including the Surry County Sheriff’s Office and Smithfield’s, Windsor’s and Franklin’s police departments, as well as a State Police representative, stood quietly as protestors spoke. Clarke, who is Black, also spoke that evening, acknowledging in his remarks the effect Floyd’s death has had on public trust in law enforcement.

“We have what we call the Oath of Honor,” Clarke said. “Every sworn law enforcement officer takes that oath. In that oath, it says public trust … Public trust and public safety are the core of law enforcement. There are brave men and women who provide this service every day and there are law enforcement officers who pay the ultimate sacrifice every day. Unfortunately, we have seen across this country, this oath has been betrayed.

“The death of George Floyd was senseless and the officer was rightfully charged criminally … It set law enforcement back about 40 years with our trust with you. We must continue to hold our office accountable to the citizens that we serve. It is our responsibility that they are properly trained.”