Demonstrators, Village at odds
- Published: August 18, 2020
Discussions between a group of anti-racist demonstrators and Village officials broke down this week after a letter from two Council members was met with a swift rebuke from organizers.
Over the last month, the groups had participated in two “restorative justice” circles in an attempt at resolving the conflict between them.
The organizers, a group of mostly young Black women who have put on rallies and marches here for the last 11 weeks, have contended that Village Council was not taking anti-racist steps quickly enough in response to demands they presented last month. Village officials, meanwhile, aired concerns that organizers were marching weekly without a permit or approved routes and had not acknowledged prior Village efforts to address racism.
Another point of contention is a June 16 phone call from YS Police Chief Brian Carlson telling a purported Ku Klux Klan member, who had threatened to counter-protest at a planned Black Lives Matter-themed Fourth of July parade, that the event had been canceled. The organizers found the police chief’s tone on the call overly conciliatory, while Village officials maintain that his approach was necessary to de-escalate the situation and not provoke the Klan.
After the most recent restorative justice circle, on Aug. 1, Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen, who is white, and Council member Kevin Stokes, who is Black, sent a letter to organizers with several requests.
The letter starts by thanking demonstrators for their time “in an effort to reach some point of healing and reconciliation,” and notes that it will take some time for the Village to institute policies in response to their concerns.
MacQueen’s and Stokes’ letter asks first, that organizers “publicly acknowledge and accept Chief’s rationale” for his handling of the call to the alleged KKK member; second, that they publicly apologize to the Yellow Springs Police Department for a chant heard at the rallies, “YSPD and KKK, who are you protecting?”; and third, that they publicly acknowledge the work that the YSPD, Village Council and staff have done in recent years “in the vein of anti-racism and equity.”
“Just as we have made a commitment to you as allies in this work, we ask that you reach out and join us by responding to our requests,” the letter concludes.
In an Aug. 8 public statement, organizers wrote that they found the letter demeaning, condescending and a “power play.”
“Our purpose is not to heal your hurt feelings or continuously appease your stunted perspectives,” the letter states, later adding, “Our jobs are to make sure we are continuously raising the bar for what it looks like to be anti-racist and to challenge and critique those that fall below it.”
In their letter, demonstrators assert that in his call to the purported KKK member, Carlson should “reflect the morals of the community he is sworn to protect” and that, in regards to the chant MacQueen and Stokes wrote was “inflammatory rhetoric” toward the YSPD, public officials should expect public scrutiny.
“We ask that you quit talking to us about feelings and finances and focus on what really matters: social justice reform and anti-racist action plans,” the letter states.
Also in the letter, organizers state that they will no longer engage in restorative justice circles with Village officials, but look forward to “moving forward, together.”
This week the News spoke with rally organizers, Village Council members and Village officials about the conflict. Other sentiments are expressed in several letters on the issue in this week’s Community Forum, including a letter from two other Council members expressing their support for demonstrators in the dispute, and the full letter from organizers.
Yellow Springs’ weekly downtown rallies started with a May 30 action organized just days after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, sparking a new wave protests across the country in support of Black lives and in opposition to racism.
Jen Boyer and Bomani Moyenda organized the first action, and were later joined by John Gudgel. The following weekend, June 6, more than 500 people showed up for the rally, which was followed by an impromptu march.
Following Village requests that organizers obtain a permit to march, which requires proof of liability insurance, Council member Stokes offered the Village Human Relations Commission’s insurance to organizers. After the insurance was used for marches on June 13 and June 20, it was pulled for the next two weekends because of the alleged KKK threat and other concerns that counter-protesters might show up.
Since then, organizers have not sought a permit or insurance for their weekly marches. More recently, Stokes learned the Human Relations Commission’s insurance was not sufficient to cover the events due to COVID-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, the Village continued for a time to request that organizers obtain insurance and a permit and share their march route “for their own safety.” The Village has also suggested the rallies be held every other week to reduce the Village’s financial and staff burdens.
Also on June 13, a group of young people, including recent Yellow Springs High School graduates and villagers in their 20s organized a “youth march” ahead of the weekly rally. From there, the young people, a group which came to include Nya Brevik, Julian Roberts and Angela Allen, who are Black, and Julia and Alaina Hoff, who are white, took on weekly organizing duties, with assistance from Boyer, Gudgel and Moyenda. They went on to organize eight more weekends of rallies featuring speakers on a variety of themes, followed by marches with various routes through the village.
Tensions were already heightened when at Council’s Monday, July 20, meeting, organizers criticized the Village’s slow progress toward racial justice and presented a series of demands to Council members that ranged from asking them to attend rallies to including Black Lives Matter materials at downtown mask give-aways to committing to reallocating funds to address the public health crisis of racism.
Council had unanimously passed a resolution at its June 17 meeting declaring racism a public health crisis. The resolution states that the Village recognizes that “racist beliefs are a direct threat to our residents and visitors” and that it’s the “responsibility of local government in collaboration with community members to actively identify this threat, prioritize implementation of anti-racist policies and take other intentional actions to address systemic racism.”
Organizers also raised their concerns about Chief Carlson’s phone call to the man claiming to be a KKK member, which organizer Roberts said at the meeting was “an absolute dismissal of the declaration of racism as a public health crisis.” Village officials defended the call by saying the purpose was to make sure the group did not protest, and that challenging the man would not have helped him change his views, but could have resulted in increased hostility toward the village.
Also at their July 20 meeting, Council members proposed a restorative justice circle with organizers to deal with the disagreements, which was immediately met with suspicion.
Restorative justice processes are typically used as an alternative to punitive measures to achieve healing after someone has committed a crime or otherwise done harm, organizers contended. MacQueen has stated that is was an approach with roots in indigenous cultures, including African cultures, where people sit in a circle, “listen to each other, and everyone’s truth is valued.”
Restorative justice circles were held in the Bryan Center gym on July 28 and Aug. 1, over a total of five hours. The sessions, which weren’t recorded, were moderated by Gudgel and Jennifer Berman, who has organized two restorative justice conferences in the village in recent years. In attendance at one or both meetings were the aforementioned rally organizers, Council members MacQueen and Stokes, Village Manager Josué Salmerón, Chief Carlson, YSPD dispatcher Ka’Dae Brockington, YSPD Community Outreach Specialist Florence Randolph, YSPD officer Paul Raffoul, Mayor Pam Conine and local resident Mori Rothman.
A few days after the second session, on Aug. 4, MacQueen and Stokes sent their letter to organizers in an email, along with an annotated list of organizer demands with Village action steps and accomplishments. Organizers fired off their response on Aug. 8, shortly before reading it aloud at the weekly anti-racist rally, which last weekend was focused on mental health and wellness.
A rocky start
Reflecting this week on what she called a “rift” between Village government and organizers, MacQueen said her intention with the restorative justice circle was to achieve “mutual understanding” by having each side share their concerns and hopes.
“My hope was that the people from Village government could understand more deeply what the organizers wanted, and that likewise they could understand the concerns of Village government,” she said.
MacQueen added she felt that both groups were working against racism and might agree that they have a common mission, despite the fact that “our strategies and tactics are different and our roles are different.”
“I felt that we wanted the same thing,” she said.
Stokes, who could only attend the second session, said the goal of the process was to develop a “good working relationship.” To him, the organizers’ demands were ultimately going to be addressed, but after the groups committed to that relationship.
MacQueen noted that the process “started off on the wrong foot” when organizers bristled at the term “restorative justice.” But it wasn’t the only thing working against the process. It started later than she feels it should have, so meeting preparations had to be cut short. Plus the conerns over COVID-19 resulted in a socially distanced, masked gathering which was not conducive to intimate sharing, she said.
Demonstrators themselves were wary of the process, especially when the Village suggested that the meetings not be recorded and confidentiality be maintained, a “red flag” that harmed the accountability and transparency of the process, according to organizer Angela Allen.
Fellow organizer Julia Hoff worried that the restorative justice framework implied that demonstrators “were the ones doing something wrong,” which she said was confirmed when Council members kicked off the process after an icebreaker by “verbalizing what was upsetting to them.”
“They were attacking us and telling us what we did wrong,” Hoff said. “We said, ‘we don’t care about feelings, we are trying to create change because we live here and we want Yellow Springs to reflect in their actions what we preach.’”
Organizers also said they felt disrespected and “talked down to,” which they suggested might be because of their age.
From her perspective, MacQueen said, she perceived that organizers didn’t see the Village as allies and weren’t interested in collaborating with the Village and YSPD, but instead in pursuing their own agenda. Organizers also didn’t fully understand what steps Council had already taken to address racism, she said.
“It was important they had that understanding,” MacQueen said. “We’ve been working on this ever since I’ve been on Council.”
Stokes said that anti-racism has been a Village value for the past two years, and that Council “was talking about anti-racism before anti-racism was cool.” One of the Village’s six Village values reads: “Intentionally promote anti-racism, inclusion, equity and accessibility through all policies, procedures and processes.”
Stokes agrees that organizers should recognize the progress that Council has already made, and its commitments to moving forward now.
“We wanted them to acknowledge that work had been done and that we want to continue to work as allies,” he said. “They said, ‘we just want you to meet our demands.’”
But organizer Nya Brevik defended their approach, saying that bringing demands was “their job as constituents,” and that she found Village officials’ resistance to addressing them revealing.
“They wanted us to praise them for doing their jobs,” she said. “We just wanted to get change.”
Brevik said that the organizers did acknowledge the Village’s past efforts, but that during the process the Village would “just continually bring up the past,” while not committing to what she said were “simple demands.”
“We said, ‘thank you, we appreciate it, but being anti-racist is just continuous,” she said.
After conversations began, the organizers’ fears were confirmed that much of Village leaders’ displays were “performative” rather than genuine, Allen said.
“They don’t understand that you can’t say you want to fight racism and be inconvenienced by the sacrifices it takes,” she said.
Phone call controversy
Another area of contention arose after a recording of the call that Chief Carlson made to the purported KKK member was made public and widely shared.
Carlson placed the call on June 16 to a man who left a voice message with the Village identifying himself as Chad Rickenberg and the “imperial wizard,” or leader, of a KKK branch. In the message, he threatened to counterprotest the July Fourth parade and used the racial slur, n—-r and the derogatory term “thugs” to refer to Black people. Reached for comment by the News a few weeks later, the Bellefontaine man said in his call to the Village he used a fake name and lied about his KKK affiliation so that the parade would be canceled. Additional News reporting tied him to KKK groups in Indiana in the past.
During his call with the man, Carlson told him that the parade was canceled for public safety reasons, to which the man responded by saying the KKK would stay away. The man went on to say that his group supports law enforcement “110%,” saying “you guys do a great job.” Carlson responded, “I appreciate that support, sir. It’s a tough time right now.” He later thanked the man again and told him to “stay safe and healthy.”
After organizers aired their criticism at Council’s July 20 meeting, Carlson released a statement saying that his actions were in line with YSPD’s goal to work in a “resolution-oriented” manner and was the “most effective path to a peaceful outcome.”
Stokes argues that a public acknowledgement of the Chief’s rationale by organizers is needed so that “we could move on and it’s not a constant talking point.” Stokes defended the police chief’s approach, which he said was with “the ultimate goal of public safety in mind.”
“We don’t want to cause trouble, we don’t want to pick a fight where there is no fight,” Stokes said.
MacQueen said she would rather have a police chief who “treats everyone with respect,” than the alternative. More significantly, MacQueen believes that organizers’ “vindictiveness toward the YSPD” needs to be addressed.
“The judgement placed on Chief Carlson was really misplaced and hurtful and harmful,” she said.
MacQueen said she was downtown one weekend when she first heard some marchers changing, “YSPD, KKK, who are you protecting?”
“It was weird because all they had to do was turn around and see the police were protecting them,” she said. “I thought that was very irresponsible.”
Village Manager Salmerón, who is Latino, agrees that the chant went too far.
“It’s a mischaracterization to say that our police are in any way sympathetic to white supremacist or racist attitudes,” he said.
As for the call, it was effective in protecting public safety, Salmerón said.
“Our goal was to get this person out. We didn’t want to stir the hornet’s nest.”
Carlson, who identifies as Middle Eastern-American, said this week that he approached the caller as he would any person in the village, including a person with a mental illness or a violent offender, and that he tried to keep his personal feelings about the man’s beliefs out of the matter.
“It’s not personal, it’s about safety and the law,” Carlson said. “That’s when we get into trouble in law enforcement, when officers inject themselves personally.”
In response to organizer demands that the purported KKK member be investigated for a possible crime, Carlson said that although he used hateful language, the person did not make a “personal threat of harm” and thus would likely not be able to be prosecuted for a hate crime.
But the call is still a sore spot for organizers, who said they felt betrayed.
Allen said organizers feel the police chief “didn’t represent anything we stand for” on the call, and gave the man the impression that local police support his beliefs.
“We didn’t feel he was protecting us from the KKK, he was sheltering and protecting them,” Allen said. “[The chief] left him with a good impression of the YSPD and the village in general.”
Brevik worries that the call could have actually encouraged the man to come to the village because he might now think that the local police would support him.
“You shouldn’t be speaking in such a friendly and welcoming way to someone who could cause harm to your people,” she added.
‘Moving forward, together’?
Although the collaboration between organizers and Village officials is on shaky ground, both sides committed to continuing to press for anti-racist action this week.
Stokes said he agrees with organizers that there is more the Village can do, and personally committed to making progress in two specific areas. The first is organizing a new implicit bias training for Village staff, which he previously organized in 2018. The other is to craft a new procurement policy with Salmerón to ensure that “women and minority-owned companies have an equal opportunity to bid and acquire Village contracts.”
Stokes said although he found the organizers’ response “a little heavy,” he is ready to keep “marching toward the same goal.”
“We responded to their demands in a positive manner. We made some requests and they responded to our requests in a negative manner,” he said. “My response is, OK. We’re going to keep moving forward.”
As for the ongoing rallies, Stokes believes they are “very critical in terms of sharing information and encouraging folks,” but that their goal shouldn’t be to “get folks angry.” He also hopes that not all of that anger is directly locally.
“It’s bigger than anyone or anything here in the village,” Stokes said. “Institutional racism, overall police brutality, the killing of Black men, that’s what I want folks to be angry about if they’re going to be angry.”
Organizers committed to continuing the weekly rallies and marches and pushing for positive change in Yellow Springs, which they believe could be a national example. Although many of the youth organizers are now headed off to college, other young people are coming up to take their place to organize the weekly events and press for the initial demands.
Brevik said the weekly presence is important to keep momentum.
“It’s important that we continue to spread the message and to show we will not go away until there is real, genuine change,” she said.
For Hoff, the marches have always been critical, as “they are the inconvenience,” and demonstrate that activists won’t give up. Hoff believes that the “pushback” organizers received only made organizers fight harder. The events revealed much about the racism that still exists in the village, she added.
“There’s more covert racism and there’s this light, liberal racism and performative activism that takes place in Yellow Springs,” she said. “We live in a place that is progressive comparatively, but we’re still not doing enough.”
Allen, who recently moved to Texas but will continue to push for local change remotely, doesn’t plan to step back. Village officials should not make it personal, but work with them for positive change, she added.
“Our goal is not to rally the community against Council,” she said. “The goal is to move together as one.”
“We’re fighting for the public safety of all. Black and brown people are part of this community.”
Visit https://www.ysnews.com to read the full list of demands and communications between the organizers and the Village.