‘Be better together’: Local group hosts Solidarity Rally for Racial Justice

“I want a world where all of us can be free to be able to grow and experience the freedoms that America promised,” Christopher Shelton told the crowd at the Village Green pavilion.

“I want us all to be able to have these things and do things to advance this agenda, but this is just the beginning,” he said. “No one has ever built a house and stopped with the foundation.”

Shelton came to Nashville from Indianapolis on Saturday to attend the Solidarity Rally for Racial Justice, which was organized by a group of local people. The purpose was to “to provide a space for solidarity, education, awareness and positive change regarding racial injustice in Brown County, Indiana.”

Across the street, resident Quinn Surface was listening. Surface and some of his friends, who make up the Brown County, Indiana Second Amendment Freedom Fighters, had decided to attend “to see what this was all about,” he said.

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He said he had heard about threats made on Facebook, so “we wanted to come out here, make sure everything was going to be peaceful.”

Surface decided to approach Shelton, who is Black, after hearing him speak.

“It was just a beautiful exchange of ideas and understanding,” Shelton said after that conversation, “just some things that he didn’t know about that he had to be made aware of.

“These conversations are really, truly important, because if we don’t learn how to communicate with each other, we can never find commonalities within the issues that we have within our communities and ourselves.

“As much as he wanted to understand, he doesn’t understand, or know, that he’s supporting the very thing that is going on here just with his presence,” Shelton said about Surface. “He wanted to learn. Curiosity is a good thing. You wouldn’t be down here if you didn’t want to learn.”

Surface said he has not witnessed racism in Brown County. He thought the rally organizers could have gone about fighting injustice in another way.

“If they really want to make a difference and they are talking about systematic racism, well, let’s go to where there’s an urban population, where there’s a black community, reach out there, help them out,” Surface said.

“Do we really have that down here? Do we really have racism down here in Brown County?”

It can be difficult to believe that’s happening in a small community like Nashville if a person doesn’t see it, Surface said.

“That’s why I approached him (Shelton) and wanted to talk to him. He told me some stories from when he was a kid that I can’t relate with by any means, but I understand where he’s coming from, and I can see where he would say that there’s racism or that there’s bias towards them,” Surface said.

The two also discussed systematic racism, which Surface said he does not believe is happening in the country. “I have not yet had anybody be able to show me a system of racism that is in place in this country,” he said.

“It’s like, I’m glad you never had to experience it or go through things like that, but I’m here to tell you that it’s real, right in front of you. If it wasn’t a real issue then why is everybody now talking about it? They understand it’s real issue,” Shelton said later.

“I understand. If I grew up in a community where there was only three Black people around, and I saw the three Black people were being treated fairly by this community, great for the three Black people, great for this community, great for keeping yourself in check and not being overtly or covertly racist or having racial issues by treating them like citizens. This is an anomaly. This is an exception to the rule. This is not the norm.”

Shelton said he told Surface that it’s important to stand up for all rights — including the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms — and now is the time to go to lawmakers about things that need to changed, together.

“We can address racial injustice, we can address social injustice, we can address education, we can address human rights violations, we can do all of these things. We have a captive audience with our government right now,” Shelton said.

“Let Black Lives Matter stand with Native Americans, let Black Lives Matter stand with Hispanic Americans that are being treated badly on the southern border or inside our northern cities, let Black Lives Matter stand with poor, rural whites that are receiving just as awful as education and going through food deserts like they are in urban areas. Let Black Lives Matter stand with these groups. Let all of us band together.”

Surface said he was happy to see the rally had gone on peacefully, with everyone being respectful.

“We actually talked to quite a few of them. They’re totally normal and nice people. I can understand, I guess, what they are trying to do, but I just don’t think they are going about it the right way,” he said, about rally attendees coming to Nashville.

Showing solidarity

The Solidarity Rally for Racial Justice was organized by a group of county residents, including recent Brown County High School graduates. Molly Austin made the initial post on Facebook about wanting to have a rally for racial justice and soon, fellow BCHS graduate Grace Richardson joined.

A Facebook group for the event grew to include more than 500 people. A few attendees, like Shelton, came from out of town to lend support.

Richardson has been a Brown County resident her whole life and is currently attending Franklin College. She worked in customer service in Nashville, so she had firsthand experience talking with visitors who were people of color and were apprehensive about visiting here.

“I had a couple visit that were afraid to stay out past dark because they were not white. It’s sad, and the whole reason I agreed to be with this rally was so that, hopefully, we can fix the generational racism and help educate people,” she said.

“Equality is something I hope will come from this and continue to come for years after.”

Objectives for the rally included encouraging people to register to vote and exercise that right; calling for accountability and transparency in law enforcement; and asking Brown County Schools to “take a proactive stance on these issues and include more diversity, inclusion and sensitivity training for staff and education for students.”

Volunteers at the rally handed out educational materials and spoke to the crowd. A Black Lives Matter chapter from Bloomington was there selling T-shirts.

The mostly white crowd held signs with messages of “Black Lives Matter,” “I’m listening” and “Silence is betrayal.”

Resident Jessica George, who is biracial, grew up in Brown County. She said she never experienced racism until she was in her 20s, which is when she started educating herself about it.

“If we want to create change, it has to start with education,” she said, before encouraging the crowd to register to vote.

“That is a powerful voice, your ability to vote.”

She also encouraged everyone to make a new friend after leaving the rally. “Get to know them as a human. … This does not stop here. This begins here,” she said.

“This is a fight. It’s not just my fight; it’s each and every one of your fights.”

Around 120 mostly local people showed up, despite full sun and temperatures in the upper 80s.

Residents Mike and Alicia Woodward said they wanted to attend and “do something” — “not just sit around at home and talk about it,” Alicia said.

“We’ve been watching it everywhere else, all over the country. It’s in our neighborhood now,” Mike added.

Walking to the rally with their signs, Mike said the couple received “a little bit of sass” from a man standing outside a nearby shop.

“He said loud enough for us to hear on the other side: ‘I never thought I’d see this in Brown County.’ I kind of turned. I guess I wanted him to see it (the sign), to see what his response was. He was like, ‘Go home. Take it somewhere else. Not here.’ We were like, ‘OK. Let’s go,’” Alicia said.

The couple said education is key to bringing light to this issue.

Resident Bob Gustin stood with a sign that read “Brown County supports equal rights and justice.”

“Thomas Paine said that you can’t be a sunshine patriot. You have to stand up for what America means even when it’s difficult, even when it’s not easy,” he said. “Too many Black lives have been lost, and it’s time for everybody to stand up for what this country really stands for, and that includes equal rights and justice,” he said.

“I believe in thinking globally and acting locally. This is my community, this is my home, and so I’m out here today to support the Black lives movement and to do a little bit in trying to make things better.”

Laura and Kevin McCracken brought two large signs in support of Black Lives Matter and a chart explaining how to be an ally.

“We want to show solidarity to our people of color who are friends of ours, who are in our lives, family members,” Laura said.

“We need each other.”

“I think, as white Americans, we have the responsibility to use our privilege to help raise awareness about injustice,” Kevin added.

Balancing act

Every officer with the Nashville Police Department — including part-time and volunteer reserve officers — was on duty for the event.

Chief Ben Seastrom said the department was impartial to the rally; their purpose for being there was to make sure every person could practice their First Amendment right to free speech or Second Amendment right to bear arms without any problems, and to block the rally area to traffic.

“Anybody anywhere can have their idea and come out and talk about it. You can be mad about your government. You can be mad about your community,” he said.

“I don’t have issues with any of it. The only time that it really becomes an issue is when people revert to damage or hate against each other, and then everything falls apart. Your idea turns into garbage the moment people start to fight and destroy things.”

Seastrom said it was also important for business owners and nearby residents to feel like they are represented by police during the rally.

It is a balancing act, he said.

“I want people to feel good and feel like they can be heard. You have to have that equal response on both ends,” he said.

The day went off without any major problems. No arrests were made related to the event, and only one couple was asked to leave, because they appeared to be intoxicated, he said.

Ahead of the rally, Seastrom did a lot of homework, reaching out to other agencies to see how similar events had happened in their communities. He also asked for memorandums of understanding with surrounding agencies for assistance if needed.

National Guard soldiers were standing in alleys about a half-block away from the event.

As tables were being packed up and the roads were being reopened, Seastrom said he was very pleased with how the event went. “Everybody was really patient with each other,” he said.

“It was a good day.”

Seastrom grew up in Brown County, too. He said he hasn’t seen anything he’d consider to be racism, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur here.

After the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers — who were later arrested and charged — protests began in big cities and small towns throughout the country, with people demanding more accountability for police officers who use excessive force. Some events turned violent, while others remained peaceful, with people of all colors marching for racial justice.

Seastrom said that what’s going on in the country is a tough topic for him.

“I don’t agree at all with what happened in Minneapolis,” he said.

“I did not take this job to murder people. I think that’s how we’re being portrayed. I know a lot of great officers. We’ve all known somebody that has not been the nicest to a person, and I hope that there’s a reason. There’s always somebody in every group that could be pointed to as ‘that’ person. It’s tough.”

He said he would support reforming the way police officers are hired and how the “bad apples” are processed. Police officers do receive diversity training, like other jobs in corporate America, he said. Officers are required to undergo annual training each year that covers a variety of topics like how to handle mental health situations or people who are different from you.

“I just know that this is a good profession, and if you truly mean you want to help people, it’s a good job,” he said.

“At the end of the day, I do feel like I’ve done something good for our community. The moment I don’t is when I leave.”

‘Be better together’

Having a peaceful rally to engage the community in conversations was the main goal of the rally, said Brown County resident and organizer Jessarae Emberton.

She was was a member of Black Lives Matter in Columbus for three years before it was disbanded. She, too, has heard the negative associations Brown County has regarding racism.

“I’ve heard stories from some of my friends of color who are older about situations they dealt with when they were younger here, and those things are deeply embedded in the culture,” she said.

“Ever since this (Facebook) group has started, we have had an outpouring of people telling stories about things they’ve heard, things they’ve seen.”

She believes it’s important to talk about racism and get a system in place to catch those complaints.

Casey Stover has worked for Centerstone in Brown County for three years as a family support specialist. She decided to get involved with the rally because she believes racism is a problem here, just like the rest of the country.

“There are a lot of people who don’t see racism, stigma or discrimination as an issue here or understand how it is relevant, but that doesn’t make it any less valid,” Stover said.

“Working in the community with individuals and families, listening and learning, has shown that these experiences are ongoing. I’m very big on education and awareness being the first step towards a solution, and that is what we are aiming for here. We want to hold space, show up and do the work so that we can be better together.”

Every person deserves to have freedom and liberty no matter the color of their skin, Emberton said. “Until that can happen, we are not where we need to be.”

Emberton said she wants to challenge those who consider themselves to be patriotic and believe this country is the land of the free, where all men are created equal, to look more into the history of racism here.

“Learn about slavery, learn about Jim Crow, about the Reconstruction period, and actually get to know what has happened in this country, because until we rectify that, we can’t be the things that we say that we are,” she said.

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Watch a video story from this event here.

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