Thursday, July 16, 2020

Rural Virginia teen holds second Black Lives Matter march after cross burnt in his front yard

Travon Brown (megaphone) led a second Black Lives Matter march through Marion, Va., July 3. (Washington Post photo by Earl Neikirk)
Communities across the nation have seen demonstrations and marches in recent weeks protesting racial injustice and police brutality, and many have been held in small towns. Though news coverage of rural protests has been largely positive, it's worth noting that not all have gone without friction.

Travon Brown, 17, led a Black Lives Matter march on June 13 in Marion, a town of 6,000 in western Virginia near the Tennessee border with a 10 percent Black population. That night, a neighbor burned a cross in his front yard. "When Travon came home the next day, he saw the charred cross in the driveway, surrounded by police tape, and felt both sad and defiant," Michael E. Miller reports for The Washington Post. "When his family had moved to Marion seven years earlier from the majority-Black city of Vicksburg, Miss., he’d been stunned by the Confederate flags on his block and the small noose left on the porch of their house when they moved in. The protests were a chance for Marion to finally change, he felt. Instead, the cross burning showed just how stuck in the past it was."

A white neighbor, James Brown, ran to help when Travon's mother, Briggette Thomas, discovered the burning cross. But on June 26, the police arrested Brown for the crime. Thomas told Miller she was in shock, and said their families had once been close, but had had a falling out about a year ago. Even though Brown confessed quickly, Travon's family was repeatedly harassed in person and online and subjected to false rumors, including one that his mother was a drug dealer.

After the cross-burning, Travon vowed to hold another protest, "but as the day of the second protest drew nearer, the personal attacks gave way to something darker in Facebook groups with names like 'Smyth County Militia' and 'Virginia Patriots Group'" in which some threatened violence, Miller reports.

The July 3 demonstration attracted hundreds of counterprotesters, many from out of town who came armed and with Confederate flags to rally around the town's Confederate monument. Dozens of police officers also came to town in an attempt to preserve the peace. "And at the center of it all was Travon, who in a few short months had gone from preparing for his high school track season to leading the largest civil rights march in Marion in a generation to being targeted with an apparent hate crime," Miller reports.

Travon was nervous about giving his speech to the crowd of about 300, but quickly found his voice, Miller reports. "This is our chance, young people," Travon said. "Y’all complain about the laws? Go change those laws. You don’t have to destroy anything. You don’t have to tear down statues."

During the march, some counterprotesters shouted or chanted insults at the protesters, but at the end of the march, Travon found words that had perhaps a bigger impact on the counterprotesters: "Travon began shouting 'I love you' across the divide, and soon all the protesters were shouting it and the faces opposite them were momentarily quiet and confused," Miller reports.

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