About 250 protesters, mostly wearing masks, gathered in Courthouse Square in downtown Warrenton Sunday afternoon to decry the death of George Floyd of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd died in police custody when an officer kneeled on his neck as he died. That officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter.
The hour-long Warrenton protest was peaceful, although some demonstrations around the state and the country have not been. Main Street was closed to traffic and many Old Town stores were shuttered during the demonstration. Warrenton police officers were present to keep the street open for traffic traveling to and from Waterloo Street, Alexandria Pike and Winchester Street. A sheriff’s office drone hovered above the crowd throughout.
The local protesters said they were there to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality. The crowd seemed to be evenly split among white and black residents; all those interviewed were Fauquier residents or employees.
Arleena Allen of Warrenton and her friend Jasmine Morton organized the protest through social media, to recognize racial injustice and reinforce the idea that “black lives matter.”
Allen, 20, was asked why she organized the protest. “If I don’t, who will?” she asked in return.
She said it was very important to her that the demonstration be peaceful. She said she knows from personal experience that racism is everywhere, even in Warrenton. She remembered being called a “n-----,” several years ago, in Walmart, and it stuck with her.
Fellow organizer Jasmine Morton said, “We need to be heard.” She mentioned protests Saturday night in Manassas, which had turned violent. “That’s not something we want to happen here. We are going to occupy this space and make our voices heard.”
Morton emphasized that she hoped the protest would not be a single moment. “This is just the beginning. We want people to vote, mobilize and make a difference.”
Protester Sherelle Smith-Robinson echoed that sentiment with a sign that read, “This is a movement, not a moment.” Smith-Robinson said that “of course this is personal for me,” as she looked over toward her husband, who was also protesting.
Theresa Smith, who was there with her two sons, choked up when asked about her reason for being at the demonstration. She just looked at her sons, Jessie, 19 and Terrel, 17, as her reasons.
Jessie Smith said he didn’t want to live in a world where you get pulled over and have to be afraid of the police.
Cora Inez, 18, from Bealeton, said she came to the protest “because it was the right thing to do. People have been killed in senseless violence… We need to protect our fellow citizens.”
Pearl Bruck of Warrenton said, “Enough is enough! How many times has this happened to a person of color? It’s got to stop. It’s 2020. We demand change.”
Jesse, who preferred not to provide a last name, said he was there to “stand up for racial justice, for George Floyd and all the other people killed by police.”
"People of color have been oppressed since way back. People talk about it, but no one’s been doing anything about it. It’s time to let our voices be heard,” Cheyenne Feno said.
Gabby Brock, 22, and Justin Alston, 24, were among those lining the sidewalk in front of the Old Jail Museum. Brock said, “I’m ready to educate myself and take a stand to help educate others” about racial injustice.
Ho’ola Bush held a sign with the names of African Americans who had been killed by police. “I woke up and read the news and felt sick. Police brutality… there are people dying. It got to me.”
Shawn and John Morton were present at the protest to support their daughter Jasmine. “We want to make sure this an issue that gets addressed, so we can make our community better, not only here but across the nation,” said Shawn Morton. “November is the next step,” she said. “Register, vote, vote absentee, make sure your voice is heard…. We want all races to come together.”
Jasmine Morton’s mother said she was proud of her daughter. “She wanted to make sure it was a peaceful protest.”
The Rev. Tyrone Green, who is the pastor at the Hearts Delight Baptist Church in Catlett and also the chaplain for the sheriff’s office, led a prayer from the Old Courthouse steps, remembering the death of George Floyd. “What happened there could happen here,” he said. “We can come together… America is the home of the free, but it needs to be free for all. We are free by blood, not according to skin color.
Green said after the prayer that he has known Allen since she was in the youth group at his former church. “She was so shy back then.” He grinned, “But now, talk about a bold spirit.”
He added that when he heard about Allen’s idea for the protest, he thought, “I was not going to let one of my babies be out there without me being here.”
Green was a calming influence when a man wearing a “conservative activist” T-shirt and a gun on his hip began yelling at the edge of the crowd. Jonathan Maxwell of Warrenton told the protesters that they had been indoctrinated into believing that police brutality has a racist origin. Although he claimed to “love black people,” he called the protesters “zombies” and shouted statistics about black people killing white police officers.
Maxwell said, “If you attack me, I have the right to respond with deadly force.”
Jason Grant, who lives in Prince William but works and shops in Warrenton, stepped in front of Maxwell to give an impassioned speech. “All of us saw a man take his last breath,” he said, referring to Floyd. “Do not let this man tell you that you do not matter.”
Green engaged Maxwell and tried to reason with him. “You are telling these people they don’t have the right to be here … These people are not your enemies; they are your neighbors.”
After unsuccessfully trying to convince Maxwell to stop yelling at the protesters, Green addressed the crowd. “Ignore this man. Don’t let him get in the way of your right to protest peacefully.”
The crowd took up the chant, “black lives matter.”
At about 4 p.m., members of the crowd began a march down Waterloo Street to end the protest.
Warrenton Mayor Carter Nevill said about the event, “In response to the tragic and senseless death of George Floyd, a peaceful protest was held today in Warrenton. The protest reflects the values we share as a community: that we are all one human race and that injustice towards some is injustice against all.
“By assembling peacefully and vocally today, the organizers have amplified their message that there are systematic issues that need to be addressed. We share in the anger over the death of George Floyd, and we recognize that it is up to all of us to be agents of change. We commend the protesters for their efforts to bring people together peacefully to speak out against injustice.”
Reach Robin Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: This story has been updated to include the name of the "conservative activist."