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Participants in Tuesday’s unity march in Lawrenceville kneeled or lay prone on the ground for nine minutes, the length of time George Floyd was held to the ground under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. / June 10, 2020
The Black Lives Matter movement has arrived in Southside Virginia as demonstrations unfold in towns and cities throughout the region.

Last week in the Town of Lawrenceville, members of the Brunswick County NAACP led a rally against systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who succumbed May 25 in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s death, and the deaths of other unarmed African Americans in videotaped encounters with police, has galvanized a protest movement across the U.S. in cities and, now, in many rural communities.

The Brunswick County rally was one of a number of events inspired by Floyd’s death taking place last week in the region. Demonstrators also gathered in South Boston and the City of Danville, and events are slated this Saturday in South Hill and on June 20 in Clarksville. A Chase City demonstration is tentatively set for Saturday as well.

About 130 people, black and white, took part in the Brunswick County rally, which event organizer Dante Davis described not as a protest but a unity march. Rally goers carrying signs stating “the time is now,” and “our lives matter, we won’t be silenced” paraded from St. Paul’s College to the front of the Brunswick County government building on Main Street in Lawrenceville starting at 6:30 p.m. Unlike the chaotic scenes erupting in many large cities, the march in Lawrenceville was a display of solidarity and a call for unity.

Davis said Brunswick County Sheriff Brian Roberts reached out to him after hearing about the march and asked to join in. Roberts, along with several deputies and members of the Lawrenceville Police Department, walked the parade route with the group in a show of support.

As marchers and others gathered on Main Street, Davis asked the crowd to “lie down on your stomach or take a knee for nine minutes,” the amount of time George Floyd struggled to breathe as Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin pressed a knee into the back of his neck, cutting off his air supply. Chauvin has been charged with second degree murder in Floyd’s death.

Between chants of “I can’t breathe,” “Don’t judge me for my color,” “No justice no peace,” participants told why they were taking to the streets in support of change. Gwen McMillian, head of Brunswick County NAACP Chapter 7050, spoke of a family member, Joseph Walton, who was lynched in 1901. Others described friends and family who received disparate treatment in the courts because of the color of their skin.

Pastor Earl Jarrell with Poplar Mount Baptist Church said there is no place for racism and bigotry. For communities to thrive and change, black and white people must come together. “I love everybody,” he said adding, “there is no race, no male or female, there is only one body but many members and it takes all of us to move the kingdom of God forward.”

Davis, who attends law school out of state, said he returned to his hometown to help organize an event that would “wake up the people of Lawrenceville to get them focused on the need for change.” At the same time, Davis said he wanted Tuesday’s rally to “be a model for what a peaceful protest looks like” and to make the conversation about more than racism.

He said he wanted to focus on ways to improve the lives of everyone in Brunswick County regardless of the color of their skin, through economic growth and opportunity.

Change begins at the ballot box, Cyliene Montgomery, chair of the Brunswick County Democratic Committee, told participants and onlookers. She encouraged everyone to register to vote and cast their ballots in this year’s elections. Montgomery brought voter registration forms and absentee ballot applications with her to the rally.

Montgomery, like Davis, said she hoped the march would be the springboard for participants to take a more active role in the community.

Davis said he was encouraged by the number of people who “swarmed” around Montgomery at the end of the rally, asking questions and filling out voter registration forms. He hopes the enthusiasm he witnessed Tuesday night will be more than simply rhetoric.

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