Michelle Billings sat down to rest after returning to the West Luray Recreation Center after Saturday’s protest in Luray proceeded peacefully, aided by local law enforcement.
“I think Luray cops and law enforcement did great,” Billings, the protest’s organizer, said Saturday.
The protest was to call for the town’s mayor, Barry Presgraves, to resign after he posted on Facebook “Joe Biden has just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick” on Aug. 1. Aunt Jemima, a breakfast brand from Quaker Oats, was retired in June after the company said the Black character’s origins were “based on a racial stereotype,” The Associated Press reported.
Presgraves has since deleted the post and wrote an apology on his Facebook page. During Monday’s Town Council meeting he again apologized and said “from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry and humbly ask for your forgiveness.”
“I was scared,” Billings said Saturday of her feelings before the protest. “Please don’t let this turn into a Charlottesville or a Portland. And it didn’t.”
Billings said she was in constant contact with Luray Police Chief C.S. “Bow” Cook before the event.
“First, I think it speaks volumes to the professionalism and dedication of Chief Cook and all the other officers and everyone who assisted to make sure everything went off as expected and everyone to be able to walk away safely,” said Luray Town Manager Steve Burke.
Cook thanked many of the other public safety officers for their help.
“First and foremost, it’s not me. It’s my men in coordination with other departments like the the Page County Sheriff’s Department,” Cook said.
On Monday, Cook said he has been reaching out to protest organizers because there has been a wave of such events since the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
“It’s a give and take a little bit,” Cook said of working with protesting groups.
He said he and other public safety officers have spent “many, many hours” researching, contacting and communicating with area groups looking to protest or counterprotest to ensure a peaceful event. On Saturday, there were 25 law enforcement officers working to make sure the event went smoothly, according to Cook.
When Cook first hears about a protest, he said, he works with the groups to try to diffuse any anger before the event while ensuring that the protest can proceed legally while minimizing disruption to residents while providing a platform for free expression.
Cook said he tries to discourage protesters from bringing firearms, though it is their right, because their presence could be another factor that could lead to quick escalation and serious injury.
“There’s equally people who intend to cause trouble on both sides,” Cook said.
On Saturday morning shortly before the protest, Cook was told that members of the Shenandoah Socialist Collective would be attending the march armed.
“I was upset yesterday morning, still frustrated with the fact that I went through all this [trouble] and they still showed up with guns,” Cook said Monday.
Members of the Shenandoah Socialist Collective said at the event that they there were there to help deescalate if conflict were to occur between protesters and counterprotesters.
Once at the event, Cook said, he approached members of the group and spoke with them throughout the march so they would have information to ensure members would not cause any trouble due to a potential misunderstanding, like mistaking a motorcycle backfiring for gunshots.
The most intense moment Saturday came when two vehicles started loudly honking at each other as counterprotesters on motorcycles revved their engines while the protesters were giving speeches adjacent to the Luray town offices across the road, according to Cook.
Quick reactions by police to make clear the situation and assure protesters there were no threats helped to bring tensions back down quickly.
“Whenever there’s a gathering of individuals, there’s always a concern for public safety,” Burke said.
Nonetheless, Cook said he hopes that other groups will still agree to not come to future protests armed after Saturday.
“I think it also demonstrates the character of the citizens of Luray,” Burke said of Saturday’s peaceful protest. “We may have issues, but we will always be able to peacefully discuss those issues and demonstrate in the community.”
Cook said area law enforcement continues to work and engage with the community, and outreach programs help to increase trust in police and diffuse tension that might otherwise stem from police’s distance from the public.
A rally in support of area law enforcement is planned for Saturday afternoon in Luray, organized by the Shenandoah Valley Supporters of the 2A, according to the event’s Facebook page.