Attendees and, later, protesters hit the books at the J20 Organizing Collective Teach-In and, later, the streets, at its associated march January 20th, in response to the inauguration of President Trump.
It was a “constellation of oppression burning brighter” that brought protesters to D.C. and Richmond streets, according to Dennis Williams, a local activist who spoke at the march.
Though quieter, a similar desire to act brought people to Gallery 5 earlier in the afternoon for the march’s associated Teach-In.
Attendees came to listen and learn from activists, many of whom formed the J20 Organizing Collective. The day’s speakers also included activists affiliated with the international Black Rose Anarchist Collective.
“I’m hoping we can use this opportunity to reflect, and to see how we can continue working together moving forward,” said the organizing collective’s media contact, Mallory O’Shea.
Seeing the unfolding of the Trump administration in the media can be “paralyzing,” she noted. But O’Shea had high hopes for the outcomes of both the march and the teach-in.
Two toddlers babbled and played as people trickled in for the first of five sessions, spanning topics from Virginia’s civil rights to direct action training for first time protesters. The event also had a free meal for attendees, catered by Richmond organization Food Not Bombs.
Bill Slavin, a chemist and activist originally from Chicago, kicked off the event with a short presentation on climate change.
Holding his young son at his hip, Slavin went through the basics of climate science, breaking buzzwords down and describing molecular processes and chemical reactions.
For Slavin, many efforts to discredit climate change came down to “bad data and misinformation.” Thus, his discussion aimed to dispel myths and educate attendees on what the current data truly indicates.
Slavin ended his talk with a repudiation of climate change denying organizations, stating that some organizations intended to mislead for their own benefit.
“This is time for direct action, because they’re not going to listen. They know what they’re ignoring,” he said.
Although the J20 organizing collective started as an ad-hoc effort for the inauguration event, some organizers, such as Slavin, made a point to state their hopes for the collective to spin out into multiple coalitions and organizing groups across Richmond.
Other talks led by organizers aimed to keep protesters safe throughout the march, including primers on how to interact with law enforcement.
A quick session with organizer Jasper Conner included a discussion of Virginian resistance and civil rights’ history, while another session briefed attendees on how they might use their art to dissent.
Attendees later joined organizers for the protest at the nearby Abner-Clay Park.
Roughly 200 people gathered at the park to stand along with the J20 collective that night. The protest began with speeches by Dennis Williams and Jasper Conner.
“We are fighting a new, more powerful system built on historic systems of injustice,” Williams warned, likening oppression to a constellation “expanding around us.”
Conner admitted he could not quite top Williams’ metaphor, and thus he stuck to the march’s brass tacks, advising protestors of designated medics and legal aid phone numbers.
The march proceeded from Abner-Clay to West Broad Street, making their way from West Leigh to the Museum District, then circling back down West Main Street.
A heavy police presence followed the march. Although the protest remained peaceful, protesters were early rankled by exchanges with apparent Trump supporters, some screaming racial epithets and slurs.
A heated exchange occurred in Abner-Clay Park before the march began, as an individual holding a drink shouted that all the protesters “Mexican friends would be deported.” One protester broke from her group and confronted the man in Spanish.
He tossed his drink to the ground, shouting slurs as he walked away. Protesters applauded, cheered and catcalled as he left.
Police were quick to surround one individual wearing a denim jacket, who followed the march up Broad Street, screaming at protesters and holding up his middle fingers. Protesters halted as he moved in front of the march, shouting that they had lost.
Protesters were quick to respond to his anger, chanting back: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” And thus, they continued.
One individual, wearing a white nationalism t-shirt and a holstered pistol, followed the march and filmed, though an organizer with an anti-fascism flag was quick to block his view.
The march was met with cheers and support elsewhere, as chanting protesters weaved through VCU campus and the Fan. Drivers honked their horns and waved as they passed to cheers and applause.
Around 10pm, the march ended back at Abner-Clay. No arrests and major incidents ultimately followed the event.
Earlier in the day, some attendees during the organization’s teach-in looked for bright spots in the coming years, asking how they might get more involved, or what strides were currently being made that they might look toward.
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Williams used the metaphor of a “constellation of oppression” in his speech, such that attendees and protesters might look upon it as a fact as unchanging as the sky.
But while a constellation is immutable, Williams was quick to note that this history, painful though it may be, can be a north star.
“All pain is a legacy. All resistance is a tradition. And we will win in the end.”
Words by Sarah Schuster, Photos by Craig Zirpolo