When Protest Comes to Main Street

Many directors are looking for ways to provide a constructive, inclusive and safe space for protest. Charity Furness, the executive director of Experience Old Town Warrenton, received a call on Sunday, May 31, that a protest was planned for downtown later that day. She quickly sprang into action and was able to put structures in place that created a positive event. But how did she do it? The answer centers upon organization, communication and compassion. Image may contain: one or more people, crowd, sky, tree and outdoor

Here is a breakdown of how events unfolded through an organized and inclusive fashion:

Town of Warrenton:

  • Contacted the organizer daily through Constant Contact, scheduling the protest for  early in the afternoon (3 p.m.).
  • The town encouraged a one-hour time frame, but they planned for the event to be longer, hoping it would disperse by 5 p.m. Ideally, everyone wanted the protest to subside by dark.
  • The organizer requested to stand near traffic, and roads were closed in various directions, leaving a one-way route to ensure that it could be closed quickly and easily if the event turned violent.
  • The town created and enforced an anti-protester section, ensured that there were three crime analysts monitoring social media and positioned three drones above the crowds. The town picked up on a handful of activities, but they were addressed by plain-clothed officers.
  • Politicians were encouraged to attend, but they should only stay for a short period of time.

Experience Old Town Warrenton (EOTW):

  • EOTW received a call on Sunday morning that theyImage may contain: 1 person, standing, plant, tree, sky, shoes and outdoor needed to take action. The protest developed quickly and escalated due to the violence in a neighboring community.
  • EOTW partnered alongside community development, town police and public works to determine an effective and efficient plan for clearing the streets.
  • The Main Street organization notified business owners via text message (contacting businesses with a first-story window) that a demonstration was planned, and they were taking every precaution to keep their business safe.
  • EOTW worked with businesses that were open and moved, literally, everything off the street. They moved their parklets, tables, chairs, benches, trash cans, flower pots, newspaper stands and more inside.  EOTW also walked the street and removed loose bricks. A pile of rubble was identified, and police were stationed nearby as an extra precaution. Public works brought a truck and trailer, as well as several strong bodies to help load the heavy items.
  • Many downtown businesses closed at 2 p.m. The local bar closed all day out of precaution, removing additional bystanders (especially those slightly intoxicated).
  • Once everything was put away, Furness notified the businesses what EOTW had done to protect the community. She also suggested that businesses, if they had remote access, to adjust their cameras towards their front windows and doors. EOTW did not recommend that business owners come downtown.
  • Furness personally greeted the protesters like she would with any resident or visitor that frequented downtown.
  • At 5 p.m., one restaurant reopened downtown. Their tables were full, and life went on by 5:30 p.m. Furness sent a follow up text to businesses that Main Street was safe and re-opened.
  • Monday morning (6:30 a.m.), EOTW arranged for the street sweeper to come through and take advantage of the empty streets. Shortly after, Main Street was rebuilt, and EOTW remained thankful that there was no broken glass or burnt/damaged buildings. The community came together and made certain that everything was put back in its proper place. By lunchtime, downtown Warrenton was a busy community once again.
  • On Monday afternoon, Charity sent an email to every business recapping the events that unfolded and how the community worked together to prevent any unnecessary violence and/or destruction.

“I watched the protest and police interactions. I watched a single mother bring her four young (white) children, holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter.” I watched cars drive by and honk, supporting the protest. I watched crowds grow, and I saw a local pastor lead people in prayer. I watched the organizer tell groups that they would march a few blocks and thanked everyone for coming out. As the crowds eventually dispersed, I watched what makes this country worth fighting for every day. I witnessed a peaceful protest against injustice. Police officers were taking photos with the protesters, people were laughing and smiling, and the community had come together to make their voices heard. – Charity Furness, Executive Director, Experience Old Town Warrenton