Racial protests intensified at last week’s Committee for Racial Justice meeting with multiple groups and organizations rallying at Virginia Avenue Park.
Police detained some individuals over the course of the event but no arrests were made and organizers said the disruptions were limited inside the meeting room with vocal protests focused outside the building.
The August meeting was the second consecutive meeting held by CRJ that drew the attention of protesters.
The July meeting on White Privilege drew a small group of masked men who were criticized for their use of anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric. Attendees at the July meeting described the protesters as white nationalists who were intent to disrupting the discussion.
In response, CRJ said the August meeting would be on Confronting Explicit racism. Organizers brought in lawyers to provide information on the rights of individuals in public meetings and a speaker to address the origins of white nationalism.
The meeting drew significantly larger crowds and the room was quickly closed.
CRJ Steering Committee member Joanne Berlin said the actual workshop continued despite the exterior protests.
“We had the workshop, we had our updates at the beginning, like we always do, we had our speakers, our Q&A with the speakers,” she said. “It went on as normal in the workshop even though there were at times a lot of noise outside.”
She said the CRJ Steering Committee did not obstruct access to the meeting and had already spoken with police officers regarding the potential for disruption at the event.
However, some meeting attendees did block access to the building several times. At one point, individuals were prevented from entering the Thelma Terry Building’s entryway and when a vocal group of protesters did enter the building, they were prevented from entering the meeting room. In both cases police officers eventually blocked the doors and in both cases at least one individual said the room was full.
Videos of the event propagated online from multiple participants showing multiple confrontations throughout the park area. Witnesses and videos show a variety of verbal confrontations containing racially charged language, anti-Semitic statements and threats of violence. While several individuals claimed to have been assaulted, no arrests were made in the meeting or in the surrounding park.
Berlin said SMPD asked for the meeting to conclude early out of safety concerns but participants chose to hold the majority of the meeting, concluding just a few minutes earlier than scheduled.
“People appreciated the knowledge inside but we did wrap up a little earlier than usual,” she said. “There were so many police there, they were concerned they weren’t covering the rest of the city at that point,” she said.
Berlin said it was too early to know what would happen at future meetings. She said the September meeting is scheduled to discuss education and that might or might not draw the same kind of disruptions.
She said the Steering Committee would be meeting in the coming weeks to decide how to organize upcoming meetings and will schedule meetings with law enforcement to fully understand what enforcement actions are warranted during disruptions to a public meeting.