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In 1998, two white police officers in Bluefield were accused of beating and dragging a young black man, paralyzing him from the neck down. He died in 2002.
His name was Robert Ellison. More than 20 years later, protesters chanted his name and those of other black men and women who have recently died at the hands of police, including George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.
Protesters, many wearing face masks, shouted “Say his name” among a sea of signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice for George Floyd.” Bluefield resident and protest organizer Charkera Ervin wrote “I Can’t Breathe” on her mask, evoking the last words of Floyd and those of Eric Garner, another black man killed by police in 2014.
“We’re not powerless people, even though events like this make us feel like it,” Ervin said. “We have it in our power right now to change policy. We have it in our power right now to hold people accountable.”
Ervin helped organize the rally over the weekend, not only to protest police violence against the black community, but to inform her friends and neighbors of a little-known Bluefield resource formed after Ellison’s death.
“We have something that activists have been fighting for all over the country,” she told protesters Saturday, “which is our citizen’s review board.”
For the last 20 years, a group of four appointed citizens, police representatives and city officials have met regularly to review police interactions with the public.
In 2013, an attorney for Ellison’s family fought to obtain then-confidential records from the group’s meetings to find out what the group had accomplished since it started, the Charleston Gazette reported. Today, the meetings happen once every three months. They are open to the public, and meeting minutes can be requested from the city clerk’s office.
“I think the major thing that any city, any area needs to do is to hold the police accountable for what they do. … Because they are the example that the public sees every day,” said Randolph Phillips, one of the review board’s citizen members. “They should live up to those standards of who they are.”
In some ways, Bluefield is ahead of other West Virginia cities that have experienced police brutality. Charleston and Wheeling have both received, but not acted on, requests from black leaders to establish a citizen’s review board for their local police departments.
But Ervin and other protest organizers said the city still has a long way to go. For one, members can review cases and provide feedback, but they don’t have enforcement powers.
Further, Ervin said not enough members of the public know about Bluefield’s citizen review board and how to use it.
“I don’t think they know how to make that mechanism work for them. So, we want to educate on that,” she said.
Ervin and April Burroughs, another organizer, also took the opportunity Saturday to educate participants on voting and the U.S. Census, saying the rally was a kick-off to their future events to discuss these and other topics.
“In the wake of all the things that’s going wrong in the world that’s racially motivated, we decided to come together to bring a sense of unity to the Bluefield area,” said Burroughs, who lives in Huntington now. “I realized that I needed to come home to do something, I realized that maybe some of the light needed to be brought to where I’m from, to bring a sense of unity to the community that I grew up in.”
Many of Saturday’s participants are residents of Bluefield and the surrounding towns, but the event also drew people who grew up there and had moved away.
Kashayla Collins, who grew up in Bluefield but now lives in Augusta, Georgia, brought her two young sons, Kaivon and Khalil to West Virginia for their first protest.
“I’m out here marching for the future,” Collins said. “I want to make sure that my kids don’t turn into George Floyd.”
“It’s important that they see us standing up for them,” Collins said. “Because at 5 and 8 years old they don’t have the voice or even the mental capacity to always understand the injustice that’s occurring. But I want them to know when they get older, and they’ll remember.”
After gathering at a local church and marching a half-mile downtown, several speakers, including candidates for the West Virginia Legislature, sitting lawmakers, local faith leaders and vocalists took the stage.
A few blocks away, a black father stood outside, a few blocks away from the rally.
A detective for the Bluefield Police Department, Kevin Ross joined the force about four years ago.
“I mean, you sit around here and you listen to people talk about the ‘police did this,’ ‘the police did that,’ and ‘I wish this would change,’” said Ross. “But you don’t see anyone putting applications in anywhere. So that was my reasoning. … Sometimes, if you want stuff done right, you sometimes have to do it yourself.”
Although Ross didn’t participate in the rally, he said he was within earshot.
“And there were some good points,” he said. “I think, you know, hopefully, things will change. But at the same time … we have to come together for it to change.”
Reporter and Southern West Virginia Bureau Chief Jessica Lilly contributed to this report.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.