The public hearing of the ordinance that will modify Blacksburg’s current rules surrounding picketing and public assembly has been rescheduled to Feb. 13 in order to consider comments and questions from activists and community groups interested in public assembly.
Despite assurances of the informal flexibility of the current administration, activists worry about the rigidity of the proposed ordinance as it is currently written and its interpretation by future administrations.
In November, motivated by the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville this summer, Blacksburg Town Attorney Larry Spencer revisited the current guidelines and rules that exist for public assembly, presenting a number of changes as “Ordinance #1848, An Ordinance Amending Town Code Sections 15-101, 15.5-102, 15-201, 15-202 and 15-203 Regarding Picketing To Clarify Process And Add Safety Provisions.”
Other municipalities within the commonwealth including Lynchburg, Virginia Beach, Tidewater and Washington, DC have reexamined or changed their picketing ordinances following events in Charlottesville.
To modernize the current ordinance, Spencer has received guidance and insight from the Blacksburg Police Department as well as from other Virginia towns.
A public hearing of the ordinance had originally been scheduled for mid-December, but has been postponed in order to consider comments and insights received from a number of groups including Coalition for Justice, New River Workers Power, Montgomery Radford Floyd NAACP, and the Dialogue on Race.
The conversation surrounding free speech and public assembly in protest and demonstration in Blacksburg has been going on among activists and rights groups, but has heated up since the disastrous events this summer in Charlottesville that left one counter-protester dead and many injured.
The local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice, part of a national network of groups and individuals working to engage “white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability” according to its website, has held two community gatherings this autumn regarding protest and demonstration in Blacksburg called “Hate in a Public Space”.
The group organized conversations “in direct response to Charlottesville and what it felt was the need to start having real conversations about the right to protest, community safety and protection,” Mallory Foutch, SUFRJ’s local chapter organizer wrote in an email.
Foutch and other activist organization representatives met with the town council, the town attorney, and the Blacksburg Police Chief Anthony Wilson to discuss what changes, if any, Blacksburg planned to make or implement “to ensure Nazis, white supremacists, and racists would not gain visibility or public space in our town,” she wrote.
“They asked for clarification about why there were changes where there were, suggested a few “maybe it would be better” ideas, and asked honest, legitimate questions,” Spencer said.
Brynne Farrell of the New River Workers Power, a local workers’ rights organization voiced concerns.
Rather than focusing on protecting protesters, the approach seems to be banning protesters’ tactics rather than addressing deeper problems of coordination and communication Farrell said, referencing the Heaphy Report, the 200-page independent review commissioned by Charlottesville that identified specific failure of the city’s preparation, communication, and training.
“We may not think of all the ways these restrictions may infringe on the rights of others,” she said.
Ordinance #1848 requires groups of 10 or more to register with a designated contact person and bans protesters from carrying sticks and poles. Farrell’s group, New River Workers Power, considers the image of workers protesting by carrying signs on sticks as foundational to the classic proletarian image of ‘strike’.
“The more we look at [Ordinance #1848] the more concerned we are about the changes,” she said.
Inflexibility for immediate assembly like holding a vigil or spontaneously gathering, unintended consequences of the proposed rule that makes the assembly of more than 10 people require a permit are cited as issues that need to be addressed to protect freedom of speech.
“Mallory Foutch and other like-minded people had questions about provisions and changes the town was considering,” Spencer said. The comments and guidance from the community groups were not sharply critical, but guided the conversation he said. “They asked for clarification about why there were changes where there were, suggested a few “maybe it would be better” ideas, and asked honest, legitimate questions,” Spencer said.
“ We were glad to be kept in the loop and asked to be updated about the evolving nature of the proposed changes,” Foutch said. Farrell suggested the formation of a Citizen’s Working Group and help the town review the Heaphy Report and other sources of guidance to prepare for potentially contentious public assemblies.
Coming from a Dec. 21 meeting with councilperson Susan Anderson and Larry Spence to discuss mark-ups and suggested edits.
Worried that future police chiefs will A significant concern is the that future law enforcement police chief may have a different outlook in the future.
It was also pointed out that the Ordinance was difficult to read and understand. Activist representatives felt they were met “half-way-ish.”
Susan Anderson feared the delay caused by continued conversation and the formation of a working group would cause vulnerability. However, town representatives reportedly were open to revisiting an ordinance periodically.
New River Workers Power representative, Farrell, who was present at the meeting pointed out that once an ordinance is passed it’s difficult to undo.
“The lessons learned are still coming out from Charlottesville. This is going to be a long process, so we want it to be a thoughtful process,” Farrell of NRWP said.
For more information about the public hearing and to read the ordinance itself, go to the Town of Blacksburg’s website: www.blacksburg.gov/town-council/meetings/public-hearings, or contact Spencer at [email protected]