Rural Black Lives Matter

After Travon Brown found a cross burning in his yard, he organized a Black Lives Matter march in the rural town of Marion, Va., where hundreds of angry counter-protestors were ready and waiting.

Mason Adams July 30, 2020

Travon Brown (center, with bullhorn) leads a march through Marion, Virginia, in support of Black lives and the LGBTQ community July 3. (Photo by Mason Adams)

MAR­I­ON, Va. — I’m going to tell y’all right now, these peo­ple want any rea­son they can find to shoot you in the head,” Arron Rashad said, refer­ring to a crowd of counterprotesters.

"When someone burnt that cross in my yard, that motivated me to go harder. That motivated me to go stronger for my people of color, for African Americans." —Travon Brown

Rashad was speak­ing to about 200 demon­stra­tors in sup­port of Black lives and the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty in the small Appalachi­an town of Mar­i­on on July 3

Sup­port for the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment surged after Min­neapo­lis police offi­cers killed George Floyd in late May, reach­ing places like Mar­i­on, a town of few­er than 6,000 in south­west­ern Virginia’s Great Val­ley. Marion’s res­i­dents are 88% white and 9.6% Black, accord­ing to Cen­sus data. The sur­round­ing Smyth Coun­ty is only 2.5% Black.

It may not be too sur­pris­ing, then, that the marchers Rashad was address­ing found them­selves con­front­ed by about 200 coun­ter­pro­test­ers, half a dozen on motorcycles.

Some of the coun­ter­pro­test­ers, wear­ing Con­fed­er­ate iconog­ra­phy, yelled at black-clad mem­bers of the New Pan­ther Ini­tia­tive as they stood at the front of the crowd and raised their fists in defi­ance. The bur­geon­ing local civ­il rights group had orga­nized the march.

Not long after, the march paused in a Wal­mart park­ing lot for par­tic­i­pants to rehy­drate and regroup. Rashad, a mem­ber of the New Pan­ther Ini­tia­tive, warned marchers not to wan­der off or engage with the counterprotesters.

His warn­ing was not hyper­bole. After a march three weeks ear­li­er, a cross was burned out­side the Mar­i­on home of 17-year-old orga­niz­er Travon Brown, a found­ing mem­ber of the New Pan­ther Initiative. 

The New Pan­thers launched out of John­son City, Ten­nessee, an hour’s dri­ve south of Mar­i­on, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The group spon­sored a series of Black Lives Mat­ter march­es in moun­tain­ous east­ern Ten­nessee and south­west­ern Vir­ginia, as well as fund dri­ves for low-income fam­i­lies and edu­ca­tion­al forums on such top­ics as white priv­i­lege and the his­to­ry of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty (with which the New Pan­thers are not affil­i­at­ed). This lev­el of activism is rel­a­tive­ly unprece­dent­ed for the region, under­scor­ing the momen­tum of the cur­rent movement. 

Brown orga­nized the first march in Mar­i­on in mid-June. Rumors spread that par­tic­i­pants were out to riot and tear down a Con­fed­er­ate stat­ue in front of the Smyth Coun­ty Cour­t­house. Brown says that was nev­er his intention.

Coun­ter­pro­test­ers showed up for the mid-June march, too, but it end­ed peace­ful­ly. That night, police were called to Brown’s house as a wood­en cross was burn­ing in a bar­rel, a throw­back to intim­i­da­tion tac­tics made infa­mous by the Ku Klux Klan. A 40-year-old white man was arrest­ed and faces charges relat­ed to the cross-burn­ing.

When some­one burnt that cross in my yard, that moti­vat­ed me to go hard­er,” Brown says. That moti­vat­ed me to go stronger for my peo­ple of col­or, for African Americans.”

Brown strug­gles, how­ev­er, with the emo­tion­al effect of being tar­get­ed by a cross-burning.

I’m not able to go to sleep some nights,” Brown says. I stay up until 4 or 5 [in the morn­ing] because I’m wor­ried about what might hap­pen to my mom because I’m out here march­ing, to my sister.”

The cross-burn­ing drew nation­al atten­tion. The reac­tion, along with the promise of Travon Brown’s atten­dance, brought an extra inten­si­ty to the ral­ly July 3. When coun­ter­pro­test­ers caught wind of the impend­ing New Pan­ther protest, they planned a sep­a­rate ral­ly at the cour­t­house. Local police enlist­ed offi­cers from addi­tion­al sheriff’s depart­ments and law enforce­ment agen­cies for a hun­dreds-strong” pres­ence, installing near­ly 1,000 feet of barricades.

By ear­ly after­noon, the coun­ter­pro­test­ers had gath­ered down­town with promi­nent dis­plays of thin blue line flags, Con­fed­er­ate flags and tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can flags. Many car­ried guns, includ­ing sev­er­al mili­ti­a­men. Few wore masks, which were promi­nent among the New Pan­ther group.

I am here so this town does not get ripped apart,” said Smyth Coun­ty res­i­dent Court­ney Pierce. We are not a racist town and this was not a prob­lem until this kid decid­ed to bring it to Marion.”

For 40 min­utes, marchers led by the New Pan­thers faced down coun­ter­pro­test­ers across a gulf, coun­ter­pro­test­ers wav­ing their flags, revving their motor­cy­cles and shout­ing, Go home!” Jonathan Jack­son, a white Mar­i­on res­i­dent in the march, shout­ed back, I am home!”

After a few tense moments of chants and name-call­ing, the New Pan­thers encour­aged any­one with chil­dren to leave out of safe­ty con­cerns. Then, it all end­ed. No arrests. No prop­er­ty damage. 

Numer­ous coun­ter­pro­test­ers referred to Travon Brown as a trou­ble­mak­er,” but what Brown was doing looks a lot like what the late civ­il rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis called good trou­ble, nec­es­sary trouble.”

The New Pan­thers wast­ed no time push­ing for­ward. The fol­low­ing week, the group orga­nized a march in Rogersville, Ten­nessee. The only arrests made were coun­ter­pro­test­ers, includ­ing sev­er­al affil­i­at­ed with white suprema­cist groups.

The march went great,” Brown says, and adds the next step for the New Pan­ther Ini­tia­tive has to be a call to action,” look­ing to the future. That grand­ma, that grand­pa isn’t always going to be here — it’s time for us to step up in their posi­tion and start lead­ing this country.”

Mason Adams grew up in west­ern Vir­ginia and has cov­ered Blue Ridge and Appalachi­an moun­tain com­mu­ni­ties since 2001. He writes from Floyd Coun­ty, Va.
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