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Rumor mill working overtime on protests

As the national conversation on race comes to Isle of Wight and Surry in the form of public protests, we urge citizens to take with a grain of salt rumors on social media sites like Nextdoor and Facebook. Rumor mongers there do the community a great disservice.

A couple of recent demonstrations in Surry and one at the old Isle of Wight Courthouse have proved that the people of this community can protest and counterprotest peacefully, with none of the violence and vandalism that have occurred in bigger cities. The one “incident” — the snatching of a protester’s sign in Surry — was the work of an outside agitator from North Carolina.

For those keeping score:

Three protests. Neighboring counties. Two different groups. No violence.

We have no reason to think this weekend’s Black Lives Matter march and rally in Downtown Smithfield will be any different. The march, organized by Smithfield native and Virginia Tech student Karra Johnson, will culminate on our newspaper’s front lawn, which is now town-owned.

Town officials, to their credit, have embraced the protest rather than resist it. Police Chief Alonzo Howell and Town Manager Michael Stallings “have been working with the organizer so that we can ensure the safety of the participants as well as the citizens of Smithfield,” Stallings told The Times in an email. “We have met several times to discuss the logistics of her march and she has been very cooperative in the planning of her event to provide for a safe and effective demonstration.”

Yet, a resident of the historic district stoked fear and encouraged overreaction by residents, writing on the widely read Nextdoor social media site, “Don’t count on our boys in blue to save our town.”

Rumors abound about violence and looting. Some fear peddlers say businesses should close for the day and board their windows.

To that, we say nonsense. To the contrary, this would be a good weekend for downtown merchants, still reeling from the COVID-19 economic shutdown, to throw open their doors and welcome the protesters, who are also their potential customers, some of whom might be getting their first look at our beautiful town. Before and after the rally, protesters will likely be looking for a bite to eat or a cold beverage. Some will look for a respite from the heat, and their browsing in downtown shops might just cause a bump in retail sales.

Should any bad actors show up looking for trouble, we have complete confidence in Smithfield’s Chief Howell and Isle of Wight Sheriff James Clarke Jr. to snub out problems before they escalate.

Clarke, at Friday night’s Juneteenth demonstration at the courthouse, was a model of professionalism, even taking the time to address the crowd of a hundred or so and acknowledge recent instances of police brutality across the nation that have eroded the public’s trust in a profession he loves.

“We have what we call the Oath of Honor,” Clarke told the group. “Every sworn law enforcement officer takes that oath. In that oath, it says public trust … Public trust and public safety are the core of law enforcement. There are brave men and women who provide this service every day and there are law enforcement officers who pay the ultimate sacrifice every day. Unfortunately, we have seen across this country, this oath has been betrayed.

“The death of George Floyd was senseless and the officer was rightfully charged criminally … It set law enforcement back about 40 years with our trust with you. We must continue to hold our office accountable to the citizens that we serve. It is our responsibility that they are properly trained.”

Johnson, the organizer of this weekend’s protest, cited advance cooperation with Smithfield police as vital to its peaceful objective.

“I feel like the cooperation from the police force will help us get our message out more clearly,” she said. “Had I not cooperated with the police force, I feel as though the protest might have been shut down and our message wouldn’t have been heard and reached as many people as I’m hoping it will this Saturday.”