Roughly 200 students and community members gathered at the University Police Department station on the Corner Saturday afternoon and marched to Carr’s Hill to protest the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict delivered Friday. Rittenhouse was acquitted on all five counts brought against him after he shot and killed two men and injured a third in Kenosha, Wis. Aug. 25, 2020.
Two days earlier, a white policeman shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times — according to bystanders, Blake had been trying to intervene in an argument between two women when the police were called. The shooting sparked unrest in Kenosha and nationwide, and Rittenhouse crossed state lines from his hometown of Antioch, Ill. to attend one of these protests in Kenosha. The officer who shot Blake was not charged criminally.
The unrest in Kenosha was a part of the widespread national protest following the murder of George Floyd earlier that summer. The Rittenhouse trial has been a polarizing subject of mass media attention and controversy, with many arguing that the presiding Judge Bruce Schroeder was biased towards the defense.
Several student groups including the Black Student Alliance at U.Va. and Young Democratic Socialists for America at U.Va. organized Saturday’s protest against the Rittenhouse verdict. A group of roughly 200 students and community members first gathered at the UPD station on the Corner, where Sarandon Elliott, fourth-year College student and co-chair of the national coordinating committee for YDSA, spoke first.
“As we march and as we leave this space, I want you to remember our system is not broken,” Elliott said. “It was designed this way. We're living in the era of reform and going to the ballot.”
In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Elliott said a group of BSA members painted Beta Bridge late Friday night with the words “Rittenhouse is a murderer.” When the group returned the next morning, the message had been smeared over. It was unclear who had defaced the message, Elliott said.
The group marched to chants of “no justice, no peace, no racist police” as they walked up the Corner to Carr’s Hill, where a number of students spoke to the gathered crowd. Students held signs and banners calling Rittenhouse a murderer.
Terrell Pittman, first-year College student and member of BSA’s political action committee, read the list of “Historic, Yet Unmet Demands” that BSA reiterated in June 2020 following the murder of George Flloyd. These demands date back to the 1970s. The demands include increasing the number of Black students, faculty and administration at the University, divesting from UPD and renaming and/or removing all buildings, monuments, plaques and memorials in honor of white supremacists and slaveholders.
“For over half a century, Black students at the University of Virginia have worked tirelessly to improve the Black student experience and voice the concerns over that lack of support,” Pittman said.
Taylor Lacon, first-year College student and member of YDSA, echoed these demands in her speech to the crowd. In October, YDSA launched a campaign calling on the University to defund the ambassador program and fire Timothy Longo, chief of police and associate vice president for safety and security.
“[The ambassadors] don’t protect us,” Lacon said. “They surveil Black and Brown students. They are complicit in the dangerous behavior of white students … they’re just baby police officers.”
The Ambassador program, which launched in 2015 after University student Hannah Graham went missing in 2014, is a private unarmed security force that the University contracts with RMC Events. The staff members are recognizable by their bright yellow jackets and patrol the streets of Charlottesville in the evening and at night. They also provide traffic control services and security at sporting events.
Ambassadors do not have any law enforcement power. Services ambassadors offer include walking, bicycle and vehicle patrols, walking escorts and alert police to hazards, medical emergencies or other possible criminal activity.
YDSA demands the funding towards the ambassador program instead be redirected towards resources like SafeRide, improving bus routes and adding more street lighting on Grounds and around off-Grounds student housing.
According to a budget summary, the ambassador program saw $1.6 million in spending during 2019 — in addition to a nearly $900,000 anonymous donation — and increased to $2.54 million in 2020. Longo’s salary is $285,000, while non-certified police officers at UPD have a starting annual salary of $45,000.
Second-year College student Christian Ephriam then spoke on behalf of Dissenters at U.Va., an anti-war group that advocates for the University’s divestment from connections in the war industry.
“We must reclaim our resources from the war industry, reinvest in life-giving institutions and repair collaborative relationships with Earth,” Ephriam said. “The only people we can count on are each other.”
A student then read a letter on behalf of María Chavalan, an indigenous Guatemalan woman facing deportation from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement who is currently in public sanctuary at Wesley United Methodist Church. The group Hands off Maria advocates on her behalf.
In the letter — which the student translated to English — Chavalan said she hopes that one day ICE officials may “transform evil into love.”
The final student speaker, who did not wish to be named, represented a group of School of Law students who published a letter in October objecting to the University’s creation of the Community Oriented Policing Squad, which is charged with monitoring the Corner and adjacent off-Grounds areas.
“Increased patrolling in the University area will not address the issue of violent crime and it goes directly against the desires of University students,” the student said.
In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Pittman said he was hopeful after seeing the turnout to the event and hearing the speakers, which “warmed [his] heart.”
“I do more than hope [for change],” Pittman said. “I know that change will happen, that it’s up to me … we are progressing towards a more equitable place.”
First-year College student Aysha Hussen heard about the event from social media and said she felt a responsibility to read more about the Rittenhouse verdict and show up to the event.
“Every time I attend [one of these events], it’s nice to feel a sense of community, to [hear] there’s other like-minded people like me that want to see change,” Hussen said. “It reminds me that there is something we’re working towards.”
Elliott said after the protest that she has “faith that some of the demands will be met.” One of Elliott’s goals in organizing the protests is to get new faces interested in organizing and mobilizing with BSA and YDSA — Elliott thinks that a lot of current organizers are feeling burnt out recently.
“I think people are angry and I think [it’s] starting to click with people that again, freedom is a constant struggle,” Elliott said. “We have to be constantly ... demanding and organizing and running campaigns. Because again, there's only power in numbers. That's our only power as the working class.”
Correction: This article previously misspelled second-year College student Christian Ephriam's last name. It has been updated to reflect the proper spelling.