RISING SUN — Ava Stephens could not sit idly by as people in other cities, towns and states debated and reacted to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
Floyd, a black man, died after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes. Two separate autopsies have ruled Floyd’s death was from asphyxiation and should be considered a homicide. Chauvin has been fired from the Minneapolis Police and is in custody on a second degree murder charge.
Huge protests have been held in Bel Air and Baltimore, absent the looting and destruction seen in Minnesota, New York, Texas and California. Protesters in Baltimore received national attention for spotting troublemakers in their crowd, shutting them down and keeping the protest peaceful.
Stephens, 15, was sitting at her family’s Conowingo dinner table recently and expressed her desire to do something as well. In about a week she organized what she called a “Peaceful Unity Walk,” which was held Saturday afternoon starting at Rising Sun Middle School and ending in the parking lot next to Rising Sun town hall. An estimated 100 people of all ages took part in the walk including Rising Sun Mayor Travis Marion, Jeff Lawson, superintendent of Cecil County Public Schools, Delegate Kevin Hornberger and Danielle Hornberger, Republican candidate for Cecil County Executive.
Before leading the walk along Pearl Street to the center of town Stephens, the daughter of a Cecil County Sheriff’s Deputy, gave an impassioned message.
“This is not a police versus citizens problem. This is evil versus good,” Stephens said. “This must end; the hate, the violence, the pain.”
Along with the anger and the outrage Stephens said there is pressure to choose a side.
“But I believe there are no sides to pick. I know the black community is hurting. I know the law enforcement community is hurting. I want to know better. I want to do better,” she said.
The answer, according to this teenager, is to get in the same room and talk.
“People are hard to hate face to face... so I’m moving in. And by being here today you are moving in. We are helping our community move in, to do the hard work and heal,” she said. “The only way we can make it is not just working together but being together.”
Joining her at the start of the Peaceful Unity Walk was Derrick Green, an African American young man who grew up in Baltimore’s foster care system. After watching his older siblings age out of the system and go into the crime centers of Baltimore and Washington DC, Green said when he turned 21 he couch surfed until meeting a white woman that would change his life.
”I have spent the last five years of my life being loved, encouraged, supported, uplifted, and given many opportunities to do great things in this community and in our neighboring communities. My family is white, and I could not be prouder to be a part of it,” Green said.
Green said racism is not a new problem, and not one isolated in large cities.
”Though these instances involve police officers, racism and apathy exist in every community, in every profession,” Green said. “Our country does not have a political or legislative issue; we have a heart issue.”
He added, it’s not just a white problem either.
”It is also black people being racist. It is black people hating other black people. It is white people disapproving of other white people for loving people that are not white.”
He chalked it up to the nature of humans to be judgmental.
“We have learned to abuse our positions instead of caring for those in need,” Green said. fortunately for him his path crossed with someone who did not judge him.
”It is because a white woman saw potential in me and believed that God had a purpose for my life that I am standing here today,” he said. “She saw that I was hurting, and was willing to step into my crazy world, a world where she had never lived.
Jude Grissom, 9, dreams of a day where racism would be erased. Grissom, 9, from Abingdon, said he participated in the Peaceful Unity Walk to stop racism. He has witnessed people being attacked because of the color of their skin.
“It makes me feel bad for the person,” Grissom said. “I wish people would stop so we could all be equal.”
Amanda Wilson came from Elkton to Rising Sun to take part as a show of support for her diverse circle of friends.
“I want to show my love and that they matter,” Wilson said.
Lawson was amazed at the turnout on a hot Saturday afternoon but more than that, he was pleased.
“This is really proactive,” Lawson said. “It’s an awareness and a nice gesture. It really is.”
Marion called it important to come together and support Black Lives Matter and the law enforcement community.
“We are working really really hard to be inclusive of all races,” the Rising Sun mayor said. “I can’t change the past but I can affect the future.”
Caleb White, who has lived all of his 13 years in Rising Sun, appreciated the Peaceful Unity March and made sure he was there to take part. As a black teenager he said he as been the victim of racial discrimination, but he sees change coming.
“And I really appreciate everyone coming out to support this movement,” he said.
Lloyd Adams, from Elkton, said he felt he needed to be part of the Peaceful Unity Walk as well.
“Not only black lives matter, all lives matter,” Adams said. “My father was a Chicago police officer. It saddens me to see the disrespect of the police.”
Mike Guess said while there has been anger and violence these past weeks there has also been the opposite.
“I have seen people who don’t look like me care for me,” Guess said. Saying he was honored to be part of the Peaceful Unity Walk, Guess He offered a prayer that God would give everyone wisdom and patience to have the needed conversation.
“This is a heart issue,” Guess prayed. “Deal with our heart. Deal with our sins.”
Also a person a faith, Stephens said she does not see color.
”My faith teaches that the world is not divided into black and white. It teaches me that all of us are capable of good and bad things. We are equal in the sight of God,” she said. “I dream of a day where no one is judged or stereotyped by the color of their skin or the badge they wear. Why keep it a dream when we can work to make it reality?”