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Marion leaders, citizens debate how best to confront racism and division
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Marion leaders, citizens debate how best to confront racism and division

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Unity Debate

Herb Clay, a Marion attorney, paramedic, former town council member and a third-generation freed slave, and 17-year-old Travon Brown, a leader of Justice, Equality, Peace and Change and two Black Lives Matter protests, addressed the Marion Town Council Monday evening. Each man brought a different perspective on how to confront division and racism in the community.

No one denied that racism exists in the community, but the best way to defeat its presence was the subject of passionate debate Monday evening.

Three leaders, including one of their own, approached the Marion Town Council with a resolution that called for the establishment of an annual Unity Day. The three men wanted to put the focus on what unites the community.

Speaking first for the trio was Herb Clay, a 64-year-old Marion native who has served on the town council in the past, is a practicing attorney, and a Marion Fire-EMS paramedic. A Black man, Clay said, “I don’t see that division that everyone is talking about.”

His work has taken him to the community’s every nook and cranny and, Clay said, what he has witnessed is good country people often clinging to traditional practices.

Clay said he appealed to Councilman Avery Cornett to help propose the Unity Day idea and they connected with Joey Carrico, the director of Southwest Virginia Legal Aid Society, to help craft a resolution.

The three agreed that they didn’t want it to be political or controversial.

Clay urged the council to set an example of leaders desiring to unite themselves and the community.

The trio proposed hosting Unity Day on the last Sunday of August, so churches could come together.

“The people of the town of Marion, of Smyth County are our people. We can disagree but be civil. We can disagree as friends,” Clay said.

“While we might disagree,” Cornett contended that everyone wants “prosperity, hope and the end of divisiveness that’s going on right now.”

The proposal was challenged by a number of citizens who argued that before the community can talk about unity it must confront the sources of division that exist within its boundaries, including racism.

Travon Brown, who has led two Black Lives Matter protests in Marion and participated in 19 others, defined unity as being whole. That’s not the case now in Marion, the 17-year-old said. He said the Smyth County Militia and similar groups made it clear that unity doesn’t exist.

The militia, which changed its name to a citizens group, actively countered the BLM protests. Among its members’ social media posts were some that could be interpreted as threatening protesters’ safety.

Brown chastised leaders for not checking on his family after a cross was burned in their yard following the June 13 protest in Marion and not speaking out against the act.

A resolution can’t produce unity, Brown said, adding, “We can achieve change by speaking out.” He encouraged the leaders and crowd to show humility and listen to the pain of others.

“We must do the work,” the Marion Senior HIgh School senior declared. Adopting a Unity Day resolution, he said, would be like trying to cover racism with a Band-Aid.

Marion resident Alexis George told the council about Justice, Equality, Peace & Change (JEPC), a newly formed local organization to fight discrimination.

Having taken part in the protests, George said, she saw and heard racism.

She told the gathering that JEPC plans to host a community rally on Saturday, Aug.15, at Riverbend Park’s amphitheater at 6 p.m. The demonstration will feature speakers and discussion, but not a march.

Misty Russell, of Bristol who has ties to Smyth County, said, “Racism is prevalent in the community.”

She said that Marion is now “under a microscope. You’ve been exposed to the world.”

She described being afraid for her safety during the July protest and march, which was met by multiple groups of counter-protesters who, at times, tried to get physically in the faces of the BLM protesters or drown out their calls to action.

The counter-protesters openly carried guns throughout the day. A much smaller number of weapons was visible among the BLM activists.

Sabrina Meadows, of Marion, also spoke of social media threats against the protesters and acknowledged that she also didn’t feel safe during the protest.

Meadows emphasized that the protests have never been about the monument to the Confederate dead on the courthouse lawn. “It’s never been about the statue… we’re just asking for equality,” she said.

Meadows called the racism running through the community a disease.

“I’m looking forward to the day I can see what Mr. Clay sees,” she said.

Clay countered that he is a third-generation freed slave. “To say I don’t understand racism… I’ve seen my mother, grandmother experience racism you can’t comprehend.”

However, the attorney said, “You need a starting point.”

Brown responded by telling the gathering that his 16-year-old sister was confronted by a man at a local store asking if she was his sister. When she said she was, the man showed her the gun he was carrying.

“We cannot have unity… until you do the work,” Brown declared. “I’ve had death threats. I had a cross burnt in my yard. I’m 17 years old.”

Ryan Boone, a local businessman, who said he’s lived in Marion 30 years, also described witnessing racism. After taking part in the protest, he told of being called a “f***ing n**ger lover.”

“Unity can only happen when we bring everyone to the table. We have to reach out, have conversations….”

Cornett told his peers and audience that his wife is a native of Columbia, South America. “I’ve seen her experience so much racism. It breaks my heart.”

“I want to see unity,” he said. “This is… to create unity.”

Councilman Jim Barker said he was so disappointed by what he saw surrounding the two protests. “I’ve never seen so much hatred put toward a group of people.” He said he was willing to work “to make something good come out” of these circumstances.

Councilwoman Susie Jennings concurred, saying, “We need a lot of conversations.”

Cornett argued that the Unity Day resolution would serve as a “beginning… not the end. It’s a declaration. We want to strive for unity.”

Mayor David Helms acknowledged that he didn’t realize the depth of the problem until he attended a forum with several Black church leaders and Police Chief John Clair. What he heard, Helms said, “kind of dumbfounded me. We’ve got work to do.”

“I don’t know how we change people. I know we need to,” said Helms, who said it sickened him to hear the examples of racism being described before him Monday evening.

He concluded, “Maybe we can be the light at the end of the tunnel for some of these other communities.”

George told the council, “We can have Unity Day as the end goal, not the start…. We really need to work together. One day is not going to do it.”

She did say that the idea of Unity Day is appreciated. “From my heart, we want Unity Day. It’s just… that we don’t want things to just look better, we want them to be better.”

The council did reject the Unity Day resolution, but unanimously supported a motion put forward by Jennings to bring everyone to the table and talk about what can be done, to start conversations, make a plan.

Ken Heath, Marion’s economic development director, said “to see the hate, the anger, the name calling” surrounding the recent protests had changed him. He told of an Emory & Henry student with Asian appearance being taunted at a local store.

No matter how hard the effort, Heath said, he wasn’t sure racism could be eradicated. However, he added, “I’m happy to take part in conversations.” He said, “We’ve started the conversation. We’ll come through this as a stronger community…. This is our community. This is our heart.”

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