Lynchburg looks back one year after protests, tear gas, and calls for justice

Lynchburg & Central Virginia News

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Sunday marked one year since the start of weeks of racial justice protests in Lynchburg, and Monday marks one year since the protest at Fifth and Federal in Lynchburg.

That night, and the protest the next night at Miller Park, were marked with property damage, arrests of protestors, and the Police Department using tear gas on residents.

Days before the Fifth and Federal protest, the restaurant’s account tweeted support of Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s tweet about masks depicting blackface.

“The city was in uproar,” said protestor and Lynchburg resident Mackton Saunders. “It was already upset because of the George Floyd situation.”

As the night wore on there was dancing and singing, but also property damage.

“You could kind of feel the tensions building,” said Lynchburg Police Chief Ryan Zuidema.

Early in the evening, the restaurant owner invited armed members of a white militia in to counter the protestors.

“Aiming those rifles and firearms, it kind of made the situation escalate a lot. That’s where the violence took place,” said Saunders. “That’s where people felt like they was being looked down upon and no one cared because they had guns pointed right at their face.”

At least 15 Black Lives Matter protestors were arrested, the vast majority of whom were Black men.

No militia members were ever arrested or charged, according to Zuidema. Commonwealth’s Attorney Bethany Harrison declined to be interviewed for this story.

“We absolutely looked into all the reports and all the concerns we’ve had,” said Zuidema, “and we certainly charged all those folks that we could identify as having committed a criminal act and we have probably cause enough to charge and hopefully convict of any criminal acts.”

Zuidema says a police vehicle was shot at and several officers were hit with objects.

“We had a brick thrown at one of our officers who had a riot helmet and a riot shield on. That brick came through, shattered the riot shield, struck the officer in the face, and caused him to get stitches on his face.”

Two nights in a row, the department used tear gas to disperse the crowds, which Zuidema defends the use of.

“It was a very challenging situation. It turned out better than it probably could have. It certainly could have gone a lot worse. I think in hindsight probably trying to engage some of the folks that were leading a little bit earlier.”

In the days that followed, the city instituted a curfew. City Councilmember Treney Tweedy, who was Mayor at the time, did not respond to WFXR News’ request for an interview, but Councilmember Sterling Wilder said the curfew was Zuidema’s suggestion.

“I think it was the best move, just to bring a calm to our community and a calm to everyone. Right now, let’s just take a pause and breathe and evaluate the situation.”

As weeks went on, Zuidema held listening sessions throughout to community to hear concerns, which Wilder applauded.

“They talked about no chokeholds,” said Wilder. “He said that’s been banned in our department anyway. So some things they were asking for had already been implemented prior. So again bringing more awareness.”

“I think everything is still the same,” said Saunders. “I can see the police department going towards hiring a few more people of color. Other than that, I can’t really see any change right now….I just encourage everybody to clip their camera on and record any obstacle or situation of any officers coming in and doing any time of harm towards you. Because now we have a voice, and it’s going to be heard one way or the other.”

After the protests at Fifth and Federal and Miller Park, several more non-violent protests took place over the following weeks.

Get breaking news, weather, and sports delivered to your smartphone with the WFXR News app available on Apple and Android.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

News tips

Do you have a news tip or breaking news to share with WFXR?  Submit your tip here.

Latest News

More News

News Tip Form