NORTH EAST — Following an incident at a recent Cecil Solidarity march and memorial, the group is now calling for the resignation of North East Mayor Robert McKnight and plans a March for Accountability today at 2 p.m. to bring attention to the issue.
Currently a petition is circulating online from Cecil Solidarity that notes during the group’s march in honor of the Black victims of police violence, three individuals were observed by members of Cecil Solidarity standing by the police department who demonstrated a lack of respect for the solemn occasion the members of Cecil Solidarity were commemorating.
Specifically the petition asserts, “While the names of victims were being read, they (the three individuals) demonstrated a lack of respect to the moment and the cause by appearing to laugh in solidarity with two community members driving by who were attempting to disrupt our peaceful honoring of Black lives killed by law enforcement.”
The petition goes on to state that two of the individuals involved were identified as McKnight and North East Commissioner Michael Kline.
The petition then notes that after asking for an apology, the group was met with “radio silence,” and was now collecting signatures to ask for the resignation of McKnight.
Cecil Solidarity Board Member and Co-Founder Christine Givens said the incident which gave rise to the petition occurred on June 27, and began with Cecil Solidarity’s event that began at North East Community Park.
Givens said the event started at the park, but then proceeded as a silent march through downtown North East and proceeded to the North East Library on Cecil Avenue. At that point a memorial service began that recognized Black victims of police violence.
Givens said as the names of victims were being called out a car came by the group on Cecil Avenue and revved its engine, causing a backfire in the exhaust that caused black smoke to go in the faces of Cecil Solidarity members.
Givens said at this point she noticed the three people, who included McKnight, Kline and Town Administrator Melissa Cook-MacKenzie, point and laugh. No more than five minutes after this, a truck came by and the driver honked the horn, made a comment and then squealed the tires, Givens said. At that point she noticed that the three people again pointed and laughed.
During this time, the memorial was being conducted in a very solemn manner. She noted the two actions disrupted the memorial and she and other members of the group felt it was inappropriate in such circumstances to laugh, due to the nature of the ceremony.
After the memorial proceedings ended, Givens said she walked over to the three individuals and asked them whether or not they were with the Cecil Solidarity group. She said they said they were not with the group and refused to identify themselves, when Givens asked.
Givens said she initially thought they were police officers or affiliated with the police department in some way. It was not until later she learned who the three people were.
She said she initially asked them about the legality of the two vehicles who drove by and disrupted the proceedings. She said that one of the gentlemen, later identified as McKnight agreed the actions of the two motorists were illegal.
She said when pressed as to why the three were there, McKnight responded that they were there simply to observe and to make sure nothing happened.
When pressed about the laughing, Givens said that initially the group denied laughing. Then she said Cook-MacKenzie said they were laughing, but at a separate joke, unrelated to the memorial. Later Givens said one of the three said they were laughing at the two motorist and their audacity in driving by the event in the way they did.
At one point Givens said McKnight told her that they were specifically there to see what was going on with the Cecil Solidarity group.
Another member of Cecil Solidarity who wished her name not be printed in the newspaper said she could not speak to the conduct of McKnight, Cook-MacKenzie, and Kline when the two vehicles drove by as she was in a location that did not allow her to see the three of them, but she was present for the conversation between Givens and the three and confirmed Givens recitation of events.
The member also noted that the three did not identify themselves and that it was initially thought they were members of law enforcement. She added that during the conversation she felt the three made several snarky remarks and were very defensive during the conversation.
“It was not a very productive conversation at all in my opinion,” she noted.
Givens noted that during the conversation none of the three apologized and the conversation eventually ended because it was effectively getting nowhere.
Following the march and memorial Givens said members of Cecil Solidarity discussed the incident and during a Tuesday meeting it was agreed to send a written request to town officials requesting an apology and a retraction. Both Givens and the other female member of the group the Whig spoke with confirmed that the group received no response at all from town officials regarding the incident.
Givens said based on the incident and the lack of an apology or response, the group unofficially made a decision Thursday night and Friday morning to circulate the petition and put out information regarding the march on Wednesday. According to Givens, the group has obtained 175 signatures on its petition. During the 2017 election cycle, McKnight ran unopposed and received 118 votes. In 2019 he again ran unopposed and received 18 votes in a low turnout election that was due to none of the candidates facing opponents.
The Whig reached out to North East town officials in an attempt to get their response. Cook-MacKenzie said that the town’s attorney would be issuing the only comments town officials would be making in the matter. On Tuesday afternoon, Cook MacKenzie forwarded a letter written by attorney David A. Beste with the firm of Downs, Beste & Blackson, LLC.
The letter is addressed to Cecil Solidarity and starts off as follows:
“On June 27, 2020, three members of the Town of North East government observed the peaceful and dignified protest organized by Cecil Solidarity, Inc. As you are aware, those three members were Mayor Robert McKnight, Vice-Mayor Michael Kline, and Town Administrator Melissa Cook MacKenzie. As always, the town officials’ sole goals were to ensure the group’s safety and help deter fringe individuals from confronting the group and causing a scene like the ones we have all seen reported recently by the media far too many times.”
The letter further offers the town’s version of events in the alleged incident:
“After listening to the speeches at the North East Community Park, Mayor Robert McKnight and Vice-Mayor Michael Kline joined Town Administrator Melissa Cook-MacKenzie outside of the North East Police Department to respectfully observe the event from a distance. Members of Cecil Solidarity, Inc. and their friends gathered in front of the North East Library as one member read the names of black lives lost across the country.
“Unfortunately, as a member of Cecil Solidarity, Inc. recited the names of victim, two vehicles on separate occasions irreverently interrupted the solemn moment. The vehicles were obnoxiously speeding and modified with loud engines and/or mufflers. The noise was so loud and offensive that it momentarily drowned out the voice of the speaker, which was already difficult for the towns officials to hear because of the distance and direction of the speaker. At the time, the Town Administrator turned to a nearby police officer, shrugged her shoulders, and sarcastically lamented, “Cecil County’s best” in reference to the shameful and disgusting display. In response, the other town officials sadly snickered in agreement.”
In response to the interaction with representatives from Cecil Solidarity, the letter had this to say:
“Subsequent to the event, two individuals approached the town officials and confronted them about the town officials’ perceived disrespectful behavior. One individual spoke with Mayor Robert McKnight and another individual spoke with Vice-Mayor Michael Kline and Town Administrator Melissa Cook-MacKenzie. During the resulting conversations, the individuals asserted that the town officials acted rudely and disrespectfully during the event as the vehicles passed by. The town officials recounted the events described above and also commiserated that the conduct of the drivers was reprehensible. One it was clear that there was a misunderstanding, the individual speaking with Mayor Robert McKnight stated, “You’re right. I am sorry.” Upset that her actions would be misconstrued, the Town Administrator requested that her explanation be relayed to the other individual that had confronted them. The other individual jumped into the conversation and stated, “I heard you.” The town officials left the event with the understanding that their explanation of the events had been heard and that a significant misunderstanding had been avoided.”
Following the event, Beste had this to say about the ongoing issue:
“Unfortunately, days later social media posts began to surface that erroneously alleged that the town officials had acted disrespectfully at the event and hastily called for their resignations. Some subsequent inquiries as to the town officials’ conduct were respectful and desired to seek out facts. Sadly, many others were belligerent and accusatory. The Town of North East is not interest in trading accusations via social media, and regrets that its presence at the event and conduct was inaccurately witnessed. The following point cannot be overstated: the Town of North East and its officials meant no disrespect to either the members of Cecil Solidarity, Inc., the “Black Lives Matter” movement, or their causes, and is sorry that the misunderstanding of the town officials’ conduct was viewed as an attempt to diminish those groups and detract from their event. The goals of racial equality brought forth by both of these organizations are essential to heal our country today and move our nation toward a place where the phrase “all men are created equal” exists as more than just words on a page.”
Beste closed his letter to Cecil Solidarity with the following:
“The Town of North East is hopeful that it is readily apparent to Cecil Solidarity, Inc. that the town officials present at the June 27, 2020 protest did not act maliciously or with an intent to detract from the event, and that any misunderstanding of the facts have been fully explained.”
The march is scheduled to begin today at 2 p.m. at the North East Library on Cecil Avenue.