On May 25, George Floyd, an African-American man, was killed by police during an arrest in Minneapolis, MN. In the wake of his death, protests have erupted across the country calling for police reform and legislation to address remaining vestiges of racial inequality.
On Wednesday, June 10, hundreds of people gathered in front of Mint Hill’s Town Hall to raise awareness of racial inequality and how it affects everyone regardless of skin color.
Organized by Mint Hill native and Independence alumna Arden Boyle, the protest aimed to unite the community in support of a cause that Boyle believes has been silenced for far too long. “If I can summarize it in one word, I’ve been saying solidarity,” says Boyle. “I’m from Mint Hill, born and raised, and a community that’s historically conservative, I’d love to raise a new viewpoint. It’s 2020, and black lives, black voices have been silenced for over 400 years.”
The main event of the evening was a series of short, inspirational speeches from local black residents and leaders. After just over four minutes of silence, Independence High School Assistant Principal Quincy Simmons kicked off the evening with a poignant reflection on those uncomfortable minutes, pointing out they were less than half the time a white officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed, face-down in the street.
Independence alumnus and professional NFL and XFL football player Jack Tocho discussed the realities of growing up black in Mint Hill, pushing the audience to confront the idea that just because you don’t see something happening in your community doesn’t mean it isn’t real for others. Fellow Independence alumna Jonese Austin reinforced Tocho’s ideas, talking about what it means to be black in the US in the year 2020. Reverend Ladale Benson closed out the evening’s speeches with reflections on peace, love, humility, and compassion.
Present at the event but absent from those who spoke was Police Chief Tim Ledford. “As police officers, we’re a neutral third party,” says Ledford. “We don’t want to take a side. That’s one reason I didn’t go out and talk to the crowd.” Ledford continues. “It’s incumbent upon me to remain neutral and ensure the crowd that police are a neutral third party.”
Wednesday’s protest faced criticism on social media from opponents who saw it as an anti-police rally, a sentiment that Boyle vehemently eschews. “I don’t believe that all cops are bad,” she says. “That’s not what we wanted to bring tonight. If somebody brought that attitude tonight, that wasn’t our goal. I believe most police officers become police officers because they want to help others, but I do believe a lot of police reform needs to happen.”
“We appreciate your support wholeheartedly,” Ledford says to those who voiced their support of Mint Hill’s police on social media. “As police officers, we take a solemn oath when we’re sworn into office that we will uphold the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment is very near and dear to all police officers,” continues Ledford. “We want to make sure that all American citizens have their rights upheld. If we don’t allow the citizens to voice their concerns, it turns into a kind of dictatorial rule.”
Several people also expressed confusion on social media about the goals of the protest, claiming that racial inequality and police bias are not a problem here in Mint Hill. “I think a lot of times it’s not a problem to those people because they haven’t experienced it,” says Mayor Simmons. “This evening’s event showed that a lot of people have had experiences that we haven’t. Those people live in our community, so I think it’s important that we get together at an event like this and we talk one-to-one, find out what you’ve experienced because if I haven’t experienced that, then I don’t know it’s taking place in the world.”
“Jack answered this best in his speech,” says Boyle. “He quoted Martin Luther King and stated something along the lines of, ‘The negro’s stumbling block is not the KKK. It is the white moderate.’ Being quiet is just as bad as being racist because when you are quiet you’re allowing those with loud (racist) voices to speak for you. Just because you might not think there’s a problem, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. You just might not see it. ”Protests across the nation have made headlines for turning violent. On the contrary, Mint Hill’s protest was a peaceful, family-friendly event attended by a diverse audience including town commissioners, local business owners and individuals of all ages and races. “When we saw that our former students were organizing the Mint Hill protest, we were not going to miss it,” says Liz Rutkowski, who along with her husband boasts thirty-two years teaching at Independence High School. “But attending was about more than supporting our ‘kids’ in a specific endeavor. It was about supporting them period. Their lives and worth and value. And it was about more than just those particular Black young people whom we know and love. Black lives and dreams are valuable not because we know them personally but because they’re human, they’re God’s creations. Being there was about standing in solidarity with the message of Black Lives Matter.”
This is the second protest to which Liz and Matt brought their three children. “Like most parents, we have taught our children the importance of using their positions to care for others,” says Liz. “We have talked about being a big sister/brother, a good friend, a responsible student, a loving neighbor. We have emphasized loving others by using our strengths for their benefit as we do what is right. How could we not extend that conversation to issues of racial injustice?”
“Bringing our kids to see us listen to Black leaders, to hear us use our words, to see us move our feet is just one way to make tangible those lessons,” continues Liz. “It’s not enough to tell our kids ‘love everyone.’ If we don’t show them actual actions, it’s just an abstract philosophy, not a lived out decision. We want the perpetuation of racism to end, so we have to do the work with our kids.” Ultimately, Boyle hopes the protest will be a starting point. “I hope my historically conservative hometown starts to listen to those that are different from them,” says Boyle. “I pray we, especially those that are white, start understanding instead of assuming.”
“I would hope that this would jump-start a conversation,” says Simmons. “Maybe a conversation in the home this Sunday afternoon as families sit down at the dinner table, they can talk about it among themselves. Maybe in the schools, when schools go back, they can talk to their schoolmates about it. Even in the business world, maybe some businessman may come in and just because of this event this evening will sit down with his staff and say, what can I do to do a better job?”
“I’m looking for the conversation to start in the community,” continues Simmons. “Take that conversation off of social media – where it seems to be so crazy – be able to sit across the table from each other, share a cup of coffee and find out what each other is saying.”
Town Hall remains closed to the public due to COVID-19, but Mayor Simmons welcomes the public to call during his virtual office hours Tuesdays from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm and Thursdays from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm. “I’d love to start some of those discussions that we just talked about in my office at the town hall,” says Simmons.