Fluvanna NAACP holds emotional forum on killing of George Floyd

By Heather Michon|

The Fluvanna NAACP held an online forum on Sunday (June 7) titled “Fluvanna Together, Striving for Equality.”

Nearly 150 people dialed into the Zoom meeting, organized and moderated by Haden Parrish of Palmyra. Among the speakers were representatives from county government, law enforcement, and social service agencies.

Ben Hudson, president of the local NAACP chapter, said the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last month had been “devastating and horrifying for me,” and he has struggled with a “range of emotions” in recent weeks. He said he hoped the virtual forum could be the start “to an effective dialog on the way forward.”

Supervisor Mozell Booker (Fork Union) read a statement on behalf of the full Board of Supervisors, saying that they were “shocked and appalled by the death of George Floyd,” and “rejected all words, actions, and policies that are divisive.” They also affirmed a commitment to consider the impact of their actions on all Fluvanna residents during their deliberations and “approach decisions mindfully.”

“Fluvanna,” said Booker, “is a united community.”

Sheriff Eric Hess, who issued a strong statement last week condemning the killing of Floyd and on his department’s commitment to serving all members of the community fairly and equally, spoke at length on the specific training and principles at work within the sheriff’s office.

The day after news of Floyd’s death broke, he sent out a reminder to deputies that “choke holds are prohibited unless deadly force is required,” never as a method for restraint. Putting pressure on a person’s back, which can cause “positional asphyxiation,” is also prohibited. “We do not train to put weight on the back,” he said.

“Arrestees are our responsibility,” said Hess. Deputies are trained to use critical thinking to defuse situations, rather than defaulting to brute force.

“The door to our office is always open,” he said in closing. “Please come see us. Ask for us to come see you, myself included. We’re glad to meet with individuals. And we will be glad to come out to any church or civic organization give any type of presentation that anyone would like. Please, when you have issues that are of concern for your sheriff’s office, please reach out to us then don’t let these things fester.”

Former Sheriff Ryant Washington said he had begun teaching his two sons, now young adults,  “the importance of understanding that you are a black male.” It did not matter that he was himself in law enforcement, he had to teach them that “there are some, no matter what, who still see you as a black male and would take an opportunity to be racist and discriminatory towards you.”

Washington said some specific actions law enforcement could adopt was increased training in de-escalation techniques and prohibition of any restraint that could restrict the flow of oxygen to the brain.

“When it comes to cultural diversity and bias-based police training, we need to ensure that it’s not just something for that checkbox, but it’s a reality scenario-based training. Currently, under Virginia law officers only are required to get cultural diversity training every two years…but only for two hours,” he said. “I’m going to take a pause on that and let you think about it.”

Asked what his office would do if there were an incident like Minneapolis or a police-involved shooting here in Fluvanna County, Commonwealth’s Attorney Jeff Haislip said best practice was to hand it off to outside investigators and prosecutors. “It would be a hard thing for me to do, because I care about this community,” he said, but the community deserved the assurance that the personal relationships between the departments did not influence a case.

In recent years, Haislip’s office has supported measures to reduce some of the burden that falls disproportionately on people of color once they enter the criminal justice system.

For example, Fluvanna does not have cash bonds. “I don’t think that someone who can’t scrape together $100 to pay to put down the $1,000 bond should sit in jail for a minor offense,” he said. He also tries to reduce sentencing and probation for low-level offenses.

“I think we get folks into a cycle of going to jail, losing their job, losing their place where they live, losing contact with their families,” he said. “And again, unless there’s a true punishment that needs to be had, a true problem that needs to be dealt with as far as the dangerousness to society, I think you can do a whole lot more harm, putting a low risk person in jail with high risk people, you’re going to get bad outcomes.”

He also said that, once a sentence is complete, voting rights should be automatically restored. “I think that’s something that’s been used to, I think, frankly, to cut back on the number of people voting and the disproportionate effect that has on the black community and the number of people voting.”

Other speakers included County Registrar Joyce Pace, who gave a brief talk on how people could register and measures her office were taking to make walk-in early voting as safe as possible; Bertha Armstrong of MAACA, who talked about efforts to make sure every Fluvanna resident had access to food; and Margo Bruce, Fluvanna County High School principal and pastor of the New Green Mountain Baptist Church, who discussed the need for education and the development of African-American curriculum so all students can understand “the oppression and the history of African Americans.”

The meeting ended with a prayer led by Pastor Bruce asking “for unity and harmony.”

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