City protesters demand racial equality

Submitted photo/Bill Whaley Photography
An aerial view revealed the entire “Black Lives Matter” mural on Race Street in Cambridge. The display, approved by city officials, was created by local artists and volunteers as a protest against police brutality in the United States. It is estimated to last about a year.

CAMBRIDGE — A series of protests took place in Cambridge on Friday, during Juneteenth observances across the nation remembering the day in 1865 when the last slaves were freed. Local groups gathered in this city, known for its civil rights activism, to call for racial equality.

Recent deaths of African Americans, some at the hands of police officers, have set off protests in cities and towns across the country. Though some of the events have turned violent, most did not, including the ones that have taken place in Cambridge since the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
As he was pinned to the street by former officer Derek Chauvin, one of Mr. Floyd’s last statements was, “I can’t breathe.”

Those words were echoed in the name of the group that organized the day’s first demonstration, “United We Breathe.”
Also taking place Friday was a cross-town march by “Millenials Demanding Change,” and work on the “Black Lives Matter” mural on Race Street.

United We Breathe
The day’s first event began in the parking lot of Cambridge Marketplace, where a multi-ethnic group displayed signs calling for justice and equality. United We Breathe began their demonstration some time ago, and found that it would occur on Juneteenth.
“Everything happens for a reason,” said Marjorie Vilson, who with Gerleene Dorce, Michiah Grainger and Shaneka Vickerie form the leadership of the group. “Our goal is to promote justice everywhere.”
She said the demonstration was to celebrate 155 years of freedom and to honor the lives of taken unjustly by police brutality.

Ms. Vilson acknowledged that it can be a painful process to create change, but a necessary one to correct half-measures made in the past to rectify the country’s social and racial issues. She was pleased with the turnout for the demonstration, which included elders and young children, black and white, and a man beating a rhythm on a Native American drum.
Cooperation also came from local authorities, something not seen everywhere in the nation over the previous few weeks. “We want to thank the Police Chief [Mark Lewis], and the Mayor [Victoria Jackson-Stanley] and the City Manager [Patrick Comiskey],” Ms. Vilson said.
“They definitely made this process easy,” Ms. Dorce said.

Ms. Vilson saw the surge of activity both locally and nationally as a part of a generational change. “We have millenials taking charge,” she said.
That generation’s familiarity with digital tools and social media means messages and organization spreads faster than ever. Mr. Floyd’s death, and his calling for his mother in his final moments, created a feeling, Ms. Vilson said, of, “Enough is enough.”
The group moved from the parking lot to the side of U.S. 50, where participants held up signs with messages including, “Justice for All,” “Black Lives Matter,” “The Second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself,” and “The Revolution will be televised.”

Many passing motorists blew their horns and waved to show their support. There was also the occasional shouted insult and obscenity.
Now, the organization’s youthful energy and passion is being used to organize new groups and projects. The activists of United We Breathe are working to set up an official non-profit organization, Ms. Vilson said.
To contact the group or to donate, email, or call 443-304-8827.
“I pray that this not be in vain,” Ms. Vilson said.

Millenials Demanding Change
The new generation was also on the street across town, where Millenials Demanding Change had scheduled a march with guest speakers at stops. Mya Woods, one of the leaders, said, “I feel as though the older generation fought their fight.”
“It’s time for the younger generation,” she said, looking over to where her son sat in his stroller. “I’m doing it for my baby.”
She said she didn’t want the days to continue in which African-American parents have “the talk” with their sons, about the dangers of contact with police. “It’s a real conversation,” she said.

Ms. Woods sensed a change in viewpoints among her peers. “Our generation is filled with open-minded people,” she said. “I feel like this generation will be the one to change things.”
Organizers of Millenials Demanding Change, in addition to Ms. Woods, are Alondria Stanley, LaSarah Kinser, James Sullivan, Marco Garcia and Meg McDermott.”
Dr. Richard Molock, a pharmacist, was there, as well. “We’re here to finish the work that was done in the 1960s,” he said. Part of his motivation is his own home life, where he has to consider the future of his children and the situations they could face. “I have four young men,” he said.

As participants gathered before the march began at 3:30 p.m., Veronica Taylor spoke about the effect of modern communications and devices — when something happens, citizens around the nation don’t have to take anyone’s word for the facts of the matter, they can often see for themselves on their phones or tablets how a crisis unfolded.
“Technology has changed everything,” Ms. Taylor said.

Dr. Molock said activists today must maintain their unity and focus on the issues, which include not only police brutality, but also housing and other economic inequities. “You have people who are intentionally dividing everyone,” he said.
As a pharmacist who treats patients the same regardless of race, he didn’t see the sense in that. “You’re a human, I’m a human,” he said.

Race Street mural
Race Street has a message for residents of the town and anyone else driving through downtown. “Black Lives Matter” is being painting in large white letters down the middle of the road, created by a group of activists and artists.
The display mirrors a similar project in Washington, D.C., in which city workers painted the same words on 16th St. Similar street displays have been created in other cities, including Salisbury.

Organizers of the Race Street project Alpha Genesis Community Development Corporation Jermaine Anderson and Adrian Greene pulled together permission, volunteers and supplies in just a few days, and got to work on the job early last week.
The words, “Black Lives Matter” stretch almost the width of the street, and for most of the length of the 400 block. The letters are decorated with portraits of civil rights leaders including Gloria Richardson and Frederick Douglas, as well as images of life in Cambridge.
The design for the mural was created by local artist Miriam Moran, who worked in cooperation with Project Manager Shelton Hawkins. She works fast when inspired by an idea. “It took me about an hour to come up with the design,” Ms. Moran said.

Her goal was to create an image promoting unity, love and compassion. “I wanted everybody to come together,” she said.
LaSarah Kinser finished marching with her group and headed to Race Street to paint, a natural move for the Mace’s Lane Middle School art teacher.
“A project like this is so important because all these people are volunteers,” showing unity in purpose, she said. Ms. Kinser said public art is an effective way to communicate a message of protest in a peaceful way, something that is used in many areas. But the mural has its own, unique merits, she said.
“The difference is that Miriam was able to fill in our specific Dorchester County history,” Ms. Kinser said. “It really speaks to who we are as a community.”

Alpha Genesis promotes the arts as a way to forge bonds.
“Each community has it own soul,” a statement from the group said Sunday. “Cambridge’s soul is one of resilience.”
“We can really learn a lot from projects like this,” the statement said. “When people are moved, the arts are truly an outlet for people to speak and come together for a common cause as one voice, with many gifts and talents to share.”

Legal approval
The mural received city approval on June 16. The legalities involved were confirmed by State’s Attorney for Dorchester County Bill Jones, who visited the scene as volunteers were busy with their brushes.
“It’s nice to see how everyone has come together,” he said. “Certainly it highlights an issue that is significant nationally and right here.”
As the county’s highest law-enforcement officer and a former policeman, Mr. Jones has a unique perspective on issues regarding brutality.
“The vast majority of cops are good people who do it right,” he said, while acknowledging the value of the work being done on Race Street. “Still, we have to double down on those who are bad officers.”

Asked about comments made by opponents saying the project was illegal or vandalism of public property, Mr. Jones said he and his staff had researched the issue of painting on a street. “We saw nothing in the law that would prevent this,” he said.
As for vandalism, he said in the law that is referred to as “malicious destruction of property,” with the first word in the phrase being the operative one. Glancing down the block at the group working on the mural, he said, “Show me the malice.”

Finally, he noted that the city owns the street, and had approved the project. “Who would be the complainant?” he asked.
The statement from Alpha Genesis said, “We’re not feeding into any negative comments, thoughts or actions. We’ll continue to bring awareness to facing race though art and culture.”
“Change is never easy, but necessary,” the message said. “To our young people, keep your light shining.”