CHARLES TOWN – Imagine what abolitionist John Brown might have said.
Around 750 protestors gathered Sunday afternoon outside the Jefferson County Courthouse where Brown was convicted of treason in 1859 for leading a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, his first planned step to start a slave liberation movement.
Sunday’s gathering, entitled “Driving Out Injustice,” was certainly more peaceful than Brown’s fateful insurgency more than 160 years ago.
Charles Town’s protest highlighted the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man killed by Derek Chauvin, a former white police officer in Minneapolis a little over a week ago.
Floyd’s killing was recorded by onlookers, who warned Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck, and that he was killing Floyd. When those same people tried to intervene and get Chauvin to remove his knee, three other police officers blocked them, in effect, aiding in Floyd’s killing. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and the three officers who gave him cover, have been charged with aiding and abetting the murder.
Sunday’s protest rally spoke out against police brutality occurring across the nation against minorities. But speakers at the event also sought to encourage a dialogue to deepen the understanding between black and white citizens.
In that way, the Charles Town protest was different from others in some cities during the past two weeks. Here, it was peaceful and nonviolent, with absolutely no property damage. People also looked out for one another in the hot sun, passing out bottles of water.
Prayer and religion proved to be a big part of Sunday’s event, which included remarks by three pastors, a prayer to begin the ceremony and one to end the ceremony. The message had a keen focus on people loving and caring for one another and the damage that racism does to that pursuit.
After a benediction from the Rev. Jeffrey Berry, a minister at Wainwright Baptist Church, and opening remarks from Jefferson County NAACP President George Rutherford, the Rev. Ernest Lyles, who for 20 years, was the pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Shepherdstown and also served as the pastor at Mt. Zion Church in Charles Town, spoke of recognizing other people’s humanity and following the commandments of Jesus Christ.
“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Lyles said. “Please, brothers and sisters, allow me to emphasize the fact that I am not speaking to the Ku Klux Klan, I am not speaking to skinheads, neo-Nazis, bigots, far-right extremists or any other hate groups. These folks are living in darkness. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.’ As the church of Jesus Christ, we are the light of the world.
“God created us to love one another. That is God’s plan for us; that we love one another,” Lyles said. “Sin is evil and racism is sin. Sexism is sin, homophobia is sin, xenophobia is sin. Hatred in every form is sin.”
Lyles encouraged everyone to move forward and spread the light of love throughout the world.
Rutherford’s opening remarks focused on honoring those affected by injustice and by looking forward to solutions. “We gathered for justice, for those who have been killed or harmed by racism, violence and unfair treatment,” he said. “We gather for better understanding of how racism harms all of us in our communities and society. We gather to re-engage with our local law enforcement officials and civic leaders.”
Rutherford said he has spoken with Charles Town Police Chief Chris Kutcher, who Rutherford said is committed to continuing dialogue with minority leaders. Rutherford added that Kutcher told him that other law enforcement officials in Jefferson County are ready to follow suit.
Charles Town Mayor Bob Trainor decried the murder of Floyd.
He spoke out against violence in all forms, regardless of whether it came from a law enforcement official or in the form of damaging someone’s home or business.
Trainor also voiced support for the efforts of local civil rights leaders and local law enforcement officials to come together and keep the lines of communication open.
Following Trainor’s remarks, two members of the NAACP Youth, Danita Berry and Malachi Carr, spoke.
Berry’s speech asked the question, “What now?” and highlighted other instances of police brutality affecting minorities, including one in Martinsburg and one in Louisville, Kentucky.
In March, Breonna Taylor of Louisville was shot dead by police officers during the service of a no-knock warrant, which allows cops to enter a residence without warning or identifying themselves.
Police officers used a battering ram to enter Taylor’s apartment and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, in self-defense, shot at the police, not knowing who they were. The police fired back, killing Taylor.
A 2013 killing that happened in Martinsburg was also a topic for discussion. Then, Wayne Jones, an African-American man with a history of mental illness was shot 23 times, including 12 times in the back and buttocks by Martinsburg police officers. His death was ruled a homicide by the coroner, but a Berkeley County grand jury declined to indict the officers who shot him.
Berry implored people attending Sunday’s rally to do something and to follow up.
“What do we do to make sure that this day is not just another day of protest, and what do we do to hold law enforcement accountable for their actions?” Berry asked. “As young people, we have to make history. Not just by marching, not just by speaking. We must not have short-term memory. We must be proactive, not reactive.
“We must begin our long-term planning. Our lives depend on it. My life depends on it.”
Carr took time to thank the work of local civil rights leaders like Rutherford.
“We have benefited from the civil rights movement — the minority and the majority,” Carr said. “We know that racism is real. It holds down many of us and holds back all of us.”
Afterward, Antonio Ramirez, an immigrant from Mexico, spoke about what he sees as the hardships Hispanic Americans face in the Eastern Panhandle and the surrounding areas.
“The police in Frederick, [Maryland] do not like us or the color of our skin,” Ramirez said. “The president of our country refers to people who look like me as murderers, criminals and rapists. This is my country. I’ve lived here for 42 years and should have the same rights as anyone else.”
After Ramirez spoke, everyone kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds in remembrance of the time that elapsed when Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck before Floyd died.
Then, the Rev. Timothy Robinson, the director of the Outreach Ministry at Zion Baptist Church in Charles Town, offered closing remarks where he implored everyone to follow the example of the Good Samaritan and to care for and love one another and, more importantly, to get out of their comfort zones and reach out to people who don’t look like them.