CHESTERTOWN — Community members joined together — in sadness, in anger, in frustration — Sunday evening in Wilmer Park for a peaceful candlelight vigil and a call for change as protests continue throughout the nation over the killing of George Floyd.
Floyd died on May 25 as a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes in Minneapolis, Minn. Video of Floyd saying he could not breathe before going silent has sparked protests over police brutality and racism.
While demonstrations have turned violent elsewhere in the country, the Chestertown vigil was peaceful. Speakers like Bishop Charles Tilghman, president of the Kent County chapter of the NAACP, spoke of their outrage over Floyd’s death while asking that those feelings be channeled into a push for change, rather than violence.
“I want to say to us this evening, it is a beautiful thing that we are here together in solidarity. And my prayer is that this will be one of the towns, one of the small cities that we don’t do any violence,” Tilghman, pastor of the Potter’s House Ministries in Fairlee, told the crowd.
Sunday’s vigil was not the end of protests in Chestertown. There have been others, including one organized via social media Tuesday afternoon by Tyron Wright. With signs held high on the four corners of the Cross Street and Maple Avenue intersection, protestors chanted “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe.”
One protestor Tuesday afternoon did not want to give his name to the newspaper after his photo was taken. He spoke about how protestors are being prosecuted and his fear that it would happen to him.
Sunday’s vigil, which packed Wilmer Park, was organized by Chestertown resident Rani Gutting, who spoke of her desire to take a more active role in anti-racism efforts. She spoke about how at a college retreat 30 years ago she was told to check her privilege — her white privilege — and walked away with a new understanding that empathy and kindness are meaningless if not backed up by action.
“And, well, here I am 30 years later. Have I been proactive? Have I done more than empathize or shown up? Or have I been quietly, politely non-racist for 30 years?” she asked.
The vigil was opened with a prayer by Kita Sorrell, mother of local basketball standout Manny Camper, who offered a powerful and passionate five minutes of devotion. In her prayer, Sorrell raised the issue of losing freedoms, “the freedom to feel like it’s OK, O God; our freedom to ride our bikes or walk down the street or go to the store, Father.”
“This prayer stands for every black father, every grandfather, every son, every nephew, every cousin, O God. God, we come on today, O God, following in your decree that this must cease, O God,” she prayed.
Paul Tue, co-chairman of the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice and cofounder of the Bayside HOYAS youth program, said that before they could address the death of Floyd, of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, they needed to remember Anton Black, the 19-year-old who grew up in Kent County and who died as police sought to arrest him in Greensboro.
“You have to say Anton Black before you say Ahmaud Arbery. You have to say Anton Black before you say Breonna Taylor. You have to say Anton Black before you say George Floyd. Because Anton Black was Kent County,” Tue told the crowd.
Tue spoke about a phrase he would hear from his elders as he was growing up, “sick and tired of being sick and tried.” While as a youth, it meant he was likely getting into trouble, it’s taken on a new meaning as he is now a 40-year-old man and a father.
Tue is sick and tired of not having answers when his 9-year-old asks if black people are the only ones who commit crimes and then backs up his question with the statement, “Black people are the only people getting killed, Dad, by the police.”
“I don’t know what to tell that kid. But I do know the trauma associated with that. There’s trauma that he has to carry at 9 years old because of the color of his skin. When he should be being innocent and jolly and joyful. He has to carry the burden because he was born black,” Tue said.
He urged the crowd not to think of the vigil as a box to check, as means to make oneself feel good. He said it needs to be part of an effort to create change.
“What happens tomorrow? What happens next week? What happens next month? What happens next year? As a black man in this country, I don’t have the power to perpetuate racism. As a black man in this country, I don’t have the power to dismantle racism. But white people do,” Tue said.
“If indeed you are an ally, then start using that power. You use that power with your vote. You hold these people that are elected to offices accountable. You use that power in meetings, when black people aren’t present. You use that power with how you spend your money. You use that power with what you’re teaching your own kids,” he continued.
“If today is just a box check, then it’s in vain. And I’m not a fortune teller but we’ll be here again — sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Tue said.
Tilghman echoed the call for change, for voting out of office those that perpetuate systemic racism in the country and community — all the way up to the White House and President Donald Trump, who he said is inciting hatred and bigotry.
“I understand the frustration. I understand the pain. I’m 72 years old. And for anybody that thinks there is no racism in this town, they’re sleeping under a rock,” Tilghman said.
Tilghman spoke about racism he witnessed his father deal with and accept that that was just the way things were.
“But we’re from a different breed. We’re not going to accept things the way they are. We are important. We matter,” he said.
He spoke about his own experiences with racism here, such as being stopped frequently by police when leaving his church and how his son and another man were made to lay down in the dirt as they were searched for no reason.
“We got to stop it. We got to put a stop to it. And the only way we put a stop to it is we got to come together and unite with one another. That’s the only way,” Tilghman said.
Underscoring his call for peaceful action, Tilghman also said not all police officers are bad. He said the community needs to recognize that there are bad officers, though, and ensure they are relieved of duty and pay for the crimes they have committed.
Tilghman called racism the worst disease in the country.
“It’s not cancer. It’s not high blood pressure. It’s not sugar diabetes,” he said. “It was blatant back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Now it’s systematic. But we recognize what’s going on and it’s time to make a change.”
Heather Mizeur, the former delegate and onetime gubernatorial candidate who now runs Soul Force Politics, talked about the history of racism, passed down through the legacy of slavery and beyond, cleaving division among people from the very beginning of the country. She said it has left a trail of inherited greed, shame and self-hatred among white people, leading them to take out that self-hatred on others.
“White people have been participating in a system where all the rules are rigged to our advantage. That’s what’s meant by ‘owning our privilege’ and being ready to just blow the doors off and share that with everyone,” she said.
Ben Kohl, a Betterton resident, spoke about the need for white people to take their privilege and use it to leverage action. He spoke about the need for white people to do more than declare themselves allies in the fight against racism. He said they need to build trusting relationships — friendships — with black people.
He spoke about the need for white people to speak out, to say something when a family member makes a bigoted remark, to talk about racism in “white spaces” and to interrupt racist incidents in the community.
“And when in doubt, it’s racism,” Kohl said.
As the candles were lit, Chestertown resident James Christy offered a closing prayer, calling for everyone to come together in Jesus’ name in the fight against racism, to “put our knees on the neck of racism.”
“Let us make racism scream it out that it can’t breathe,” Christie said.
He prayed that the vigil be something more than just a moment and lead to something greater.
“So God I pray right now that as we light these candles let something light up on the inside of us, O God. Let us take note of having more than just an event. Let us take change, O God,” Christy prayed. “So God, we thank you even in this that you use this to make a change here in Kent County. So when we walk away, let us not walk away with just lit candles, O God. Let us walk away with a new fire burning on the inside — of equality.”