By Bryn McCarthy
Worries about the coincidental celebrations of Lexington’s famous Confederate generals and Martin Luther King Jr. on the same weekend this coming January has led city officials to devise a new parade permitting process.
Both Lee-Jackson Day and MLK Day fall on the second weekend in January, and last year tensions arose between the anti-racism group known as CARE Rockbridge and the Virginia Flaggers, activists from Virginia and elsewhere who wear Confederate uniforms and carry the Confederate battle flag in parades and protests.
CARE President Lyndon Sayers describes last year’s stressful, though peaceful, conflict with the Flaggers as “water under the bridge” and not something likely to recur. He does not expect the same tension between groups to exist this year, as the events will now be separated by two days.
“Last year we had applied for a parade on the Saturday of Martin Luther King weekend, and so that elicited a reaction from some groups who had been used to having their parade on that date,” Sayers said. “But as a result we had nearly a thousand people show up for our inaugural MLK parade, which demonstrated that the will of the people of Lexington was predominantly to celebrate MLK and not other figures.”
After the deadly clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, officials are taking appropriate measures to maintain safety throughout Virginia, and here in Lexington.
On Aug. 24 Governor Terry McAuliffe created a Task Force on public safety and preparedness. He appointed Lexington City Manager Noah Simon to serve as one of 25 members on this Task Force.
In addition to his role on the Task Force, Simon is working on making local adjustments.
The city of Lexington is restructuring its parade permitting procedure in a way that will allow only one event per day, to reduce the likelihood of conflict between groups.
“We are going to be updating our special event process so that we can be better equipped to deal with any issues both positive and negative that arise with large groups assembling in various forms in our community,” Simon said.
This year, CARE has submitted a parade permit request for the Monday of MLK Day, Jan. 15. The Flaggers have applied for a parade on the Saturday, Jan. 13, of this same weekend.
“I think after Charlottesville,” Sayers said, “a lot of people are more concerned about the threat of violence, so that would be one argument in favor of us having the MLK parade on MLK day itself this year and not inviting outside groups to tag on in counter-protest of our parade.”
Local officials recognize this worry about violence between conflicting groups after Charlottesville, and are working on preventative measures.
Lexington Mayor Frank Friedman says city officials have already begun talking to police and other city staff about protocol and how they will manage these events come January to ensure everyone’s safety. He is confident that this community will continue to be respectful and support conversation, “even if they don’t always agree on topics, or for instance, say, the meaning of flags and events.”
Friedman said Simon and other city officials have and will continue to use all possible resources to ensure public safety.
Last January, Simon worked diligently with local law enforcement and state police to take all the necessary steps to create a positive outcome. Friedman feels that this involvement was a factor of his appointment to Gov. McAuliffe’s Task Force.
Simon, along with the Task Force’s 24 other members, will address the circumstances that led to the events of Charlottesville and strategize ways of promoting safety throughout Virginia in a series of meetings.
He says one of the things the Task Force will focus on is best practices to facilitate peaceful events in the future.
It has had only one meeting, in Richmond, but will reconvene Oct. 3.
Friedman, Simon and Virginia officials as a whole acknowledge that protecting the rights of all groups to peaceably assemble for events ranging from parades to protests is a balancing act, but safety is the priority.
“That’s really our job as government,” Friedman said. “To provide public safety and keep folks safe to be able to express themselves as good Americans.”