Section of Massachusetts Street occupied by protesters will stay closed ‘at least’ through Wednesday; mayor voices support for protesters

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Protesters gathered along the south side of Massachusetts Street on Monday afternoon, June 29, 2020, after police officers and sheriff's deputies lined the street to keep people out of the roadway.

Story updated at 6:01 p.m. Tuesday:

As a protest that is occupying a block of Massachusetts Street continues into its fourth day, the City of Lawrence says it will keep the road closed “at least” through Wednesday.

Protesters have been occupying a portion of Massachusetts Street that runs through South Park since Saturday after a graphic banner depicting a lynching and an anonymous letter criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement were hung in the park, as the Journal-World previously reported.

In a news release Tuesday afternoon, the city stated it believed First Amendment activities could continue while also maintaining public safety and allowing access for residents and businesses nearby. The release notes that Interim Lawrence Police Chief Anthony Brixius closed the roadway between the east and west sides of South Park on Monday using city barricades, and those barricades would remain in place at least through Wednesday.

“The City of Lawrence recognizes this is a historic time, and that Lawrence has a deep-rooted value in protest and change through community voice,” the release states.

Protesters had previously placed improvised barriers on the roadway, such as trashcans and picnic tables. City crews removed those barriers on Monday, and law enforcement initially told protesters to clear the roadway completely before Brixius allowed the area of Massachusetts that goes through the park to be occupied.

Mayor Jennifer Ananda told the Journal-World Tuesday that she supported the decision to block off the roadway and allow protesters to remain in place. Ananda noted that the City Commission has stated that Black lives matter, and she said the city is working to make systemic changes by collaborating with the city’s Black community and nonprofits, as well as the county and state governments.

“This demonstration is an important part of this conversation, and when we learn to listen without centering our own experiences, then we will see truly remarkable change,” Ananda said. “The city of Lawrence is committed to the pursuit of a just existence and just community for all residents.”

Following the death of George Floyd while he was pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, thousands of protesters filled the streets of downtown Lawrence on May 31. A small group of protesters has remained present downtown in recent weeks, but the protesters did not begin occupying the street until after the banner and accompanying letter were found in South Park on Saturday. The letter described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “lynch mob” and made multiple allegations that the movement was violent and authoritarian.

Regarding the letter, Ananda said those descriptions actually describe the white supremacy that has been occurring in the U.S. for the past 400 years, and that the banner itself functioned as a threat of violence. She said the event only made the conversations about systemic change more important.

“I think it heightens the importance of our entire community engaging in creating real change,” Ananda said.

Two vehicles attempted to drive through crowds of protesters on Monday. The city news release states that city crews installed safer and sturdier barricades and detour signage to protect individuals in the area and allow better traffic flow. The portion of Massachusetts Street that is closed to traffic does not have any intersecting streets, and the release notes that the area is commonly closed for summer festivals.

“This familiar arrangement offers better pedestrian protection and will make it easier for community members to conduct civic and commercial business,” the release states. “It also provides better access for emergency vehicles to navigate around the closed street.”

In addition to advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement, protesters are also calling for the release of Rontarus Washington Jr., a Black man who has been in the Douglas County Jail for five years and is currently awaiting a retrial on a first-degree murder charge. Washington’s attorneys have requested that his bond be lowered, and a hearing regarding the request will take place at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

The city’s news release does not indicate when further decisions regarding the road closure will be made, but states it will continue to monitor the situation.


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