Anti-racist Struggle Continues in Powhatan, Va.

The chant “No Justice, No Peace!” rang out once again in Virginia’s rural Powhatan County, as some 250 people marched May 17 on the county courthouse.  The protesters, almost all African-Americans and including a large number of uniformed motorcycle club members, were denouncing what they charged was a racist court decision in the shooting death of local high school student Tahliek Taliaferro.

Led by the slain youth’s mother, Kaa Caputo, cousins Rev. Indee Hopewell Brown, Rev. Nichole Phillips, and other relatives, the marchers first rallied at Hollywood Baptist Church and then walked about a half-mile to the courthouse, where they circled the building’s block-long lawn, chanting and waving signs.

“My prayer is that this will raise awareness and that nothing like this will ever happen again, that things will be different because of what we are doing,” Rev. Brown told a reporter.  “That is our prayer.”

It was the second mass march called to protest the March 24 court decision in which a nearly all-white jury convicted Taliaferro’s killers, but reduced the charges from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

Cousins Ethan Parrish, 24, and Joey Parrish, 18, were originally charged with homicide in the June 24, 2008 fatal shooting of Tahliek Taliaferro, 18, a popular high school athlete, and aggravated malicious wounding in the related shooting of Courtney Jones, then 15.

The murder charges carried potential sentences of 20 years to life in prison.  But at the trial, the jury instead convicted the Parrishes of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter in Tahliek’s death — an offense that carries a maximum of just 10 years — and assault and battery in Courtney’s wounding, which could bring another 12 months.  Joey Parrish, a convicted felon, was also convicted of illegal possession of a firearm.

Eleven of the 12 jurors were white, as are the Parrishes.  Taliaferro was African-American, as is Jones.

According to courtroom testimony, the Parrishes had challenged Taliaferro to a fight, then drove off in an SUV driven by a friend, 18-year-old Stephanie Reynolds.  Taliaferro and Jones followed in a car driven by fellow teenager Lawrence Harris.

Shortly after, the Parrishes pulled off to the side of the road, covered their license plate with plastic and waited for the other car to catch up.  As Harris drove by, Ethan Parrish fired six shots from a semi-automatic AK-47 assault rifle he had loaded with an 83-shot drum clip, hitting Taliaferro in the back of the head and wounding Jones, who survived after an operation in which part of his colon as removed.  The cousins then fled, hiding for a brief time in Canada before returning to Powhatan to surrender to authorities.

Immediately after the court decision, Kaa Caputo along with dozens of her friends and relatives and a number of white high school students who knew Taliaferro began holding protests outside the county courthouse.  When they called for a larger protest for March 29, nearly 700 people responded.

A few days later, Ku Klux Klan literature was surreptitiously distributed in the county.

The smaller number of protesters on May 17 may have been due to inclement weather and the fact that several college and university graduation ceremonies were also taking place that day.  Even so, the May 17 protest was one of the largest Black civil rights marches to take place in Virginia in many years.

“It was a wonderful display of love and support and the sense of community that we have here in Powhatan County, as well as in the surrounding communities,” said Rev. Brown.

Among the participating organizations were the Virginia State Conference NAACP, the Virginia State Unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, members of the Northern Virginia immigrant rights group Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, the Virginia Commonwealth University Black student organization Africana, and the community organizations Power, Inc. of Portsmouth and the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality of Richmond.

Nearly a quarter of Sunday’s protesters were members of Virginia Black motorcycle clubs, outfitted in their club colors.

According to Rev. Brown, the family is calling for a third mass protest for May 26, when Stephanie Reynolds is scheduled to go to trial.  Reynolds was originally charged with first degree-murder, but that charge has also been reduced to involuntary manslaughter.

A fourth protest will then take place on June 4, when the Parrish cousins are to be sentenced.

For more information or to offer support, e-mail the Taliaferro family at:

Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto are members of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which helped coordinate security for the May 17 protest.