Before the June 5 county council meeting turned into a shouting match, before Council Chairman John Grasso and meeting attendees engaged in a heated discourse over First Amendment rights and county council rules, Councilman Pete Smith detailed two deeply personal childhood stories — one about kids calling him the N word unprovoked and one about two men who beat his stepfather with a shovel.
“I tell you that because racism is ugly, and even now, 25 years from when that incident occurred, I still feel the impact and the emotion when those three individuals assaulted my stepfather and beat him with those shovels because he was black,” said Smith, who recounted the events while holding back tears.
Smith introduced Resolution 22-17 after Second Lieutenant Wilbur Collins III was fatally stabbed by a University of Maryland student from Severna Park in a tragedy that is being investigated as a potential hate crime.
Smith proclaimed that the resolution, which passed unanimously, will condemn messages of racism and support tolerance and diversity in Anne Arundel County.
“If we as a community don’t come together, you’re going to create more victims who will never forget how it feels to be minimized, to be denigrated, to be denied access, to be just made to feel like less than they are human,” Smith said.
Not only did the speech elicit tears from Smith but it also evoked a chorus of clapping. Most importantly, as community members testified during the public hearing, it jumpstarted a dialogue about hate speech and bigotry in Anne Arundel County.
Lori Bradford encouraged the council to do more than pass a resolution, which she called “feel-good words.”
“I’ve walked down Ritchie Highway trying to catch a bus at night and been called the N word, in Anne Arundel County,” said Bradford, who lives in Severna Park. “I’ve been held at gunpoint by police in the state of Maryland for a busted tail light. These are things that you all have the power to change. I know it won’t be done overnight, but a resolution is just the start.”
Civil rights activist Carl Snowden urged the council to amend the resolution to denounce white supremacy, a change the council heeded. But it wasn’t any one race or group of people who testified at the meeting; it was mothers and preachers, fathers and students.
“There are nooses at the middle school, a racist petition,” said Jen Haber. “My daughter at Severna Park High School can walk down the hallway of her school and hear slurs.”
Severna Park resident Mariya Hutto brought her 7-year-old son because, among other reasons, she wanted to set a positive example.
“I have heard many condolences for Mr. Collins’ family, but while condolences are necessary and appropriate, they do not go nearly far enough toward mending the systemic racism we have right here at home, where we are raising children who join white supremacist hate groups and use symbols of this county’s darkest hour to terrify their neighbors,” Hutto said.
Earlier in the meeting, the council chambers erupted into chaos when, citing council rule 4106 about decorum, Grasso ordered attendees to use their two minutes to speak on the subject rather than bash Councilman Michael Peroutka for his past affiliation with the League of the South.
Peroutka later explained that he had no knowledge of racist behavior demonstrated by League of the South members until 2014, when he left the nationalist organization after disagreeing with its stance on interracial marriage.
“In both private and public policy, we must remember that God created only one race, the human race … same DNA, we’re the same people,” Peroutka said. “Therefore, all elevation or denigration of individuals or groups based on skin color is immoral and shameful because it violates the law of nature and nature’s God.”
After Grasso and the public jockeyed for speaking rights, Smith encouraged his fellow councilmen to listen no matter how uncomfortable the discussion.
“I would encourage you to have an open mind and listen to some of the words that are said, and that uncomfortableness that you feel is the same feeling that those that have been discriminated against their entire lives have felt almost every single day.”
Those remarks were lauded by Annapolis resident Vickie Gipson, who said her arm was broken 40 years ago by a group of white boys while she was walking home from school.
“I know it’s difficult to keep a room in order, you know, but squashing people’s opinions is oppressive. It’s traumatizing,” Gipson said. “… I don’t know how often you go to a store and you’re completely ignored by people, you know, or when you interact with police and you get a chilling effect that maybe what you’re saying is not believed because of the color of your skin. … When you shut people down, you shut the conversation down.”
More Than A Resolution
During a meeting held by the Caucus of African-American Leaders in Annapolis on June 13, Smith called for race relations to be labeled a State of Emergency. The advocacy group WISE acted on that suggestion with its own meeting, “Pause for a Purpose: Conversations on Promoting Equity in Our Community,” held at Opportunity Builders in Millersville on June 21.
Not only did the meeting focus on race but also the condemnation of people based on gender and sexual orientation. DaJuan Gay talked about how “racism is poisoning the social and economic growth of our community.” He cited an example from his adolescence, when a chain message declaring “N-word Day” was sent around his school.
Two high school students read anonymous messages that WISE solicited on Twitter. Among the submissions were tales of a student threatening to “kill the gays,” vulgar cat-calling, a teacher using the word “retarded” and a teen calling a teacher a “stupid Mexican.”
Charlotte Byrd, a therapist who works in Severna Park, talked about healing and ways people can “stop being the unprotective bystander.”
“When it comes to prejudice, when it comes to racism, silence really is violence,” Byrd declared.
Adults and children alike shared their stories. Skye Bailey involved the audience with Speedraceing, a concept similar to speed dating, that engages people in quick conversations, thereby eliminating any preconceived notions they may have had.
WISE members concluded the meeting by announcing a march at Annapolis City Dock on June 25, which was led by the Anne Arundel County branch of the NAACP. For anyone who wants to get involved in the discussion on equity, WISE shared the following resources: Speedraceing (www.speedraceing.com), SURJ-Annapolis (www.showingupforracialjustice.org), Coming to the Table (www.comingtothetable.org) and the “Caucus of African-American Leaders” Facebook page.
“This is our first conversation, but we hope it will not be our last conversation,” said Kathy Bain, a member of the WISE steering committee.