A change in a planned protest route and inflammatory commentary on social media has the Marion Police Department concerned about safety during two demonstrations scheduled for Friday in Downtown Marion.
On June 21, local Black Lives Matter protest organizers announced that their second rally, which is also in support of the LGBTQ community, would be held Friday, July 3 at the Farmer's Market pavilion, with a march through Main Street to follow.
Days later, another group announced they would also exercise their first amendment rights that day to hold a Fourth of July celebration on Main Street in front of the courthouse around the same time.
An American Patriot Ride supporting first responders, military and veterans has also been planned for July 3, but is scheduled to kick off in Wytheville much earlier than the other events. The motorcycle ride is scheduled to depart from the Rural King in Wytheville that morning, traveling through Marion to stop at the courthouse, and then on to Bristol.
Organizers of all three events have called for peaceful demonstrations, but Marion Police Chief John Clair is concerned that inflammatory commentary surrounding the two downtown events has the potential to incite dangerous interactions between the groups.
“There has been intense and agitating commentary and this gives us concern for the safety of everyone involved,” Clair said. “I don't believe the incendiary comments represent any of the organizers of either of the groups or the majority of the of participants, but its existence is still concerning,”
The PD plans to separate the two downtown events by using barricades to force distance in order to ensure that both groups can exercise their constitutional rights in a safe and coordinated manner.
“The use of barricades creates distances so that if any dialogue occurs, it occurs safely,” Clair said.
Organizers of each of the events have been in contact with the police to coordinate. Until Sunday, the BLM protest group was on track to march the same route through Main Street as they had during a June 13 rally. Over the weekend, however, organizers announced a route change that would lead marchers onto residential and secondary roads, Clair said.
“We fundamentally believe that it is inherently unsafe for large amounts of pedestrians to be on secondary roads,” he said, later adding,“We feel like the previous agreed upon perimeters allowed us the greatest ability to keep everyone safe.”
During the previous march on Main Street, police performed what's called a “rolling roadblock,” a traffic control technique in which police paced ahead and behind of participants to keep them safe from traffic. Clair explained police were able to do this because Main Street is a four-lane road and so it did not block the entire street and still allowed traffic to flow.
The secondary and residential roads on the new route are two lanes, which would require the shutdown of streets and disruption of traffic. That poses a significant risk to marchers, Clair said. He pointed out that parades are also not permitted to take place on secondary streets within the town for this reason.
In a release sent out Monday morning, the PD urged organizers to stick to their coordinated plans to ensure that constitutional rights are exercised safely and peacefully.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, police can shut down a protest through a dispersal order when there is a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic or other immediate threats to public safety.
Changes to a planned protest route and increasing inflammatory commentary on social media has left the Marion Police Department urging organizers to return to coordinated plans with police.
According to a release from the PD, Black Lives Matter protest organizers had previously coordinated an event for July 3 at the Farmers Market pavilion, which included a march on primary roadways with police escort to ensure safety.
The release states that organizers announced over the weekend a route change that would lead marchers onto residential and secondary roadways.
"Although we absolutely support and desire to protect the organizers right to protest, rally, and march, we fundamentally believe these changes to pose a significant risk to the participants," the release said.
According to the release, the PD is aware of at least two separate first amendment groups that intend to gather in and around the downtown area on Friday.
The department has been working on plans to separate the two groups to ensure the safety of all participants while they exercise their constitutional rights in a safe, legal, and peaceful manner.
"In the days following, there has been increased commentary attempting to incite dangerous interactions between these groups," the release said. "Although this commentary does not likely represent the organizers or the majority of participants, the widespread nature of it is concerning."
The department is urging event organizers to consent and cooperate with planned separation, which would allow both groups to exercise their rights freely and peacefully, the release said.