ALEXANDRIA — Demonstrators marching to bring awareness to social issues including police reform and racial justice were met by a group of counter-protesters Saturday, leading police to block off an intersection in the center of town while several heated discussions took place between members of the groups.
Members of It’s Up There, an Anderson-based community organization campaigning “to make change to the injustices the world faces on a daily basis,” according to its Facebook page, arrived in Alexandria planning to assemble at a small park near the intersection of Church and Harrison streets for a rally. About a dozen of them congregated on the sidewalk at the southeast corner of the intersection. Across Church Street, a group of residents had gathered, and the groups began to exchange words soon after the marchers arrived.
“It was posted all over the Alexandria Facebook page that Black Lives Matter was coming in,” said Kyle Fahl, one of the counter-protesters. “The way the majority of us look, Black Lives Matter is starting and keeping the racism going, because it’s not about black lives. It’s about black, white, yellow, green, purple – it’s all lives matter, period.”
Several marchers stressed that the It’s Up There group is not affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. They said the intent of the gathering, in their minds, was to engage residents in meaningful dialogue on several of the same issues that have driven nationwide protests in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“We want to just start a conversation,” said Kyle Hartle, one of the protesters. “There’s too much hate around – people showing up with the Confederate flag, a guy shows up with an AR-15 … it’s sad. But we’re out here to have a voice.”
Officers with the Alexandria Police Department soon arrived and took up positions in the street in an effort to keep the groups separated. Soon, barricades were brought in to block off Church Street while officers continued to direct traffic along Harrison Street. Some of the officers spoke briefly with protesters on both sides in an effort to defuse tensions.
Members of the police department had been alerted by chatter on social media about the planned event, which Alexandria Police Chief Terry Richwine said made a difference.
“We honestly thought it would work out very well and it did, so we’re happy,” Richwine said as the groups dispersed. “It was a peaceful protest. They had that lively discussion, and now they’ve both said their piece. No harm, no foul.”
Shortly before the gathering broke up, Hartle said he wasn’t sure the group’s message was being heard.
“I think for the most part, that hatred takes over, blinders go up,” he said. “They feel so passionate about what they believe in, and that’s their right, but for the most part I believe it’s falling on deaf ears.”