Approximately 50 people gathered for a funeral outside the Virginia Capitol Building in early February. Mourners collected around a homemade black coffin as an unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon in Richmond turned to nightfall. Lit with battery-powered candles, attendees read speeches and then solemnly hoisted the casket as they embarked on a long, slow march toward the Capitol steps.
But there was nobody inside that duct-taped covered box, because this was no ordinary service. Activists had gathered that day for what they called a “funeral for the old Democratic party,” a week after the now-infamous page from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook leaked, showing a man in blackface next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
Because the governor was not present the day of his own funeral, Rebecca Keel was forced to deliver her speech to the makeshift coffin.
“We have had it with you,” said Keel, a community organizer with Southerners for New Ground (SONG). “We are here for a new vision. We are here to see that phoenix rise from the ashes and for the people to truly be the democracy.”
SONG is one of several groups that have called on Northam to resign in recent weeks. On Saturday, for instance, the Fauquier County NAACP joined more than 100 protesters on the steps of the Virginia Capitol. Attendees traveled from all corners of the state to join the picket line to declare: “Gov. Northam has to go!”
But what makes SONG unique is that its members are not only people of color; they are also queer and transgender. While groups such as the Kinfolk Empowerment Center, Eyes Wide Open Project, Race Capitol, Friends of Buckingham County, and RVA Dirt have joined them on the front lines, SONG is the only LGBTQ group that has formally lent its time and resources to the movement to oust Northam.
Described as a “queer liberation organization” on its website, the Atlanta-based group boasts six chapters across five southern states. When Stacey Abrams lost a bitterly fought midterm race in Georgia following allegations of election fraud by opponent Brian Kemp, SONG called on officials to “count every vote.” Their organizers were among 15 protesters arrested by Georgia State Capitol police in November when Democratic State Sen. Nikema Williams made national headlines after being taken away in handcuffs.
Keel said SONG was “ready and willing” to take on another fight in Virginia after Northam refused to heed calls for his resignation.
“Lots of queer people came to this fight because we know what it’s like to be ridiculed, and we know what it’s like for that ridicule to be considered common culture,” she told Splinter last week. “We also know what it’s like to have our stories erased, just like this whole thing is trying to be swept under the rug.”
The LGBTQ activism in Virginia is often reminiscent of queer groups like ACT UP and Gays Against Guns, HIV/AIDS and gun control organizations which use creative confrontation to provoke discourse.
On President’s Day, for instance, Keel helped lead protesters in a “March of Reckoning” down Capitol Street as they sang along to lyrics from “The Guillotine,” a 2012 track from the appropriately named hip-hop group The Coup.
“We got the guillotine, you better run!” protesters chanted.
There was no actual guillotine on the streets of Richmond that day. The song was intended to warn Northam that a revolution is headed his way following his retraction of his apology for appearing in the blackface photo; his insistence that neither of the students in the photo were him; his admission that he once “used just a little bit of shoe polish” to dress up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest; and his refusal to step down.
Keel, who likened the march to “street theater,” claimed it was a warning ahead of November elections in the Virginia General Assembly.
“We have been compiling our people’s demands,” she told Splinter. “We’ve been on the ground pushing for resignation, but we’re also looking toward the future. In both our House and our Senate, everyone is up for reelection.”
Those demands include environmental justice for Union Hill, a historically black community that stands to be impacted by the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The proposed 600-mile pipeline would transport natural gas from West Virginia into the Commonwealth. Opponents are concerned that a compressor station slated to be built in Union Hill would pump excessive exhaust into rural Buckingham County.
According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the compressor station would “emit nearly 300,000 tons” of air pollution each year. Former Vice President Al Gore attacked the development as a “vivid example of environmental racism” in a visit to Union Hill earlier this month.
SONG organizers hold Northam directly responsible for the crisis.
“Northam fired two of the people who wanted to do an environmental check in the area before making any plans,” Micky Jordan, a communications associate with SONG, told Splinter. “That’s an example of him not thinking about the needs of people who live in his state.” (Splinter reached out to Northam’s office for comment but did not hear back prior to publication time.)
Keel said the controversy is just another indication Northam has ignored the state’s most marginalized.
“This is about much more than just about blackface—it’s about policies that are negatively impacting marginalized communities,” she claimed. “It’s about not doing enough for those communities.”
Other demands include increasing aid to people with disabilities and ending the overpolicing of communities of color in Virginia following settlements in two high-profile cases of misconduct (India Kager was killed in 2015 during an automobile search, and college student Martell Johnson received 10 stitches after his head was bashed into the ground during an alcohol check the same year).
Brooke Taylor, a community advocate and member leader with SONG, said that many in the LGBTQ community may not understand why these action items are at the top of the group’s agenda. But for many of its members, these issues are deeply personal.
“You can’t divorce your queerness from your blackness,” Taylor told Splinter. “For some folks in the community who are not black or people of color, being queer is their only minority identity. But for those of us who live dual identities or even triple identities, it’s very important that we call attention to racism—even in our own community.”
Luckily, the organization has a direct line to make that call. One of their community organizers, Edwuan Whitehead, also interns for the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. Whitehead said the caucus’s 17 members have been “absolutely supportive” of SONG’s efforts, allowing him to act as its symbolic representative at protests.
Whitehead told Splinter that he comes to this fight not merely as a black and LGBTQ person; an activist and a politico; but also as a constituent.
“I voted for Ralph Northam,” said Whitehead, who also serves as a member leader at SONG. “This is about holding the person that I voted for accountable and using my civil rights to make sure that my voice is heard when he does something out of line with the values that I stand for.”
If as Northam has claimed, his plan to remain in office is to devote the remainder of his four-year term to “racial equity,” his critics plan to hold him to that. House Bill 2767, which would create a “Virginia African American Advisory Board” to advise the governor on issues facing communities of color, recently passed the State House. The proposed board is comprised of 21 members, at least 15 of whom must be black.
But that plan doesn’t go far enough, according to Whitehead. He claimed the legislation allows Northam to handpick its membership. Instead he argued the Black Caucus should “able to control who goes on that advisory council—to make sure that we have the right voices that are being heard.”
Others say there is no solution that doesn’t end in Northam leaving office.
“Mr. Northam broke the trust of his constituency,” Taylor claimed, echoing a speech delivered at the governor’s funeral earlier this month. “I don’t believe politicians should be perfect, but I do believe that we deserve transparency. Northam has not been transparent at all.”
SONG members claim they will continue to march until the revolution finally reaches Richmond. They have a lot of potential targets. The Virginia Democratic Party is in a state of crisis. Two women have come forward to accuse Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault—he denies those claims—and State Attorney General Mark Herring has also admitted that he wore blackface as part of a Kurtis Blow costume in 1980.
While Fairfax and Herring are definitely in line for the chopping block, Keel maintained that Northam “comes first.”
Following weeks of “all bark and no bite,” the group called on Democrats in the Capitol to join them.
“Many of our legislators were among the first to call for his resignation,” Keel claimed. “We’ve been extremely disappointed by Democrats in Virginia who are quiet and want this whole thing to pass over for the sake of keeping the party together. There’s so many people who just are completely over that.”
Nico Lang is an award-winning reporter and freelance editor. His work has appeared in INTO, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Rewire.News, Out, The Advocate, Vox, Washington Post, and the L.A. Times.