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Hundreds join Black Lives protest in Pasadena, calling for an end to a pattern of racism

Hundreds of protesters gathered Saturday to denounce police violence against black people and stamp out systemic racism in Pasadena, a place where the 72-year-old president of the Anne Arundel County NAACP and an 18-year-old recent high school graduate recounted decades- and months-old stories of racism.

Hate has persisted, they said. Enough.

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When Jacqueline Boone Allsup was about 16, she’d get on the public bus on Mountain Road and white people would spread out so she and other black residents couldn’t sit down, the NAACP president told a crowd gathered at Tick Neck Park.

And when bystanders in the Green Haven neighborhood saw people like her on the bus, they’d hurl eggs at it. That was more than five decades ago.

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“I’m sure things have changed,” she said. “But not enough.”

Divine Benson, 18, graduated from Northeast High School last year. She told The Capital about how during her junior year, a group of students posted threats on social media directed at black students like her, whom they described using racial slurs.

“It freaked me out,” she said. Benson and some others stayed home for a few days.

In this setting and during the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, 20-year-old Shelyia Brown saw an opportunity. She woke up one night amidst national unrest following Floyd’s killing and decided to do something about it. She planned a protest for a place she grew up, a place she knew needed it: Pasadena.

The scene that unfolded Saturday afternoon shocked Brown and even the most experienced civil rights activists in the county. Sign-wielding protesters of all creeds and colors — black and white, young and old — showed up in droves.

Police had prepared all week for violent counter-protesters, but the cheers of few in opposition to the march were muted by the thunderous roars of “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice! No Peace!”

Participants gathered at the park adjacent Northeast High and filled an entire soccer field. Perched atop a flight of stairs overlooking the facility, Brown, Allsup and others addressed the crowd with a megaphone.

Before protesters took off down Duvall Highway, Brown also told them about her personal experiences in Pasadena.

“This area needed this: Too many times I would walk around Northeast High and people would say: Do you live here? Do you go here?” Brown said. “That cannot be accepted!”

“You being here says some really really bold things," said Lateesha Brown, Shelyia’s mother. “It says that you recognize inequality. It says that you are not indifferent; that you see that changes need to be made... Change does not start in the White House. Change starts right here.”

Longtime civil rights activist Carl Snowden estimated the crowd to be the largest of any rally held in the Annapolis or Anne Arundel County since the news of Floyd’s death reverberated across the nation. And as the throng of protesters began to walk with signs held above their heads, Floyd’s name became their chant.

“Say his name — George Floyd!”

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A black man, Floyd died after a white police officer pinned his knee Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers involved in the incident have been arrested on charges of aiding and abetting murder. All four officers were fired.

Police Chief Timothy Altomare was with a contingent of his officers at the park and told the crowd that officers were there to protect them and warned them to be safe in the hot weather.

“You have my promise that every life in this county matters to us," he said. “Everyone is precious to us and we exist to save lives.”

Someone in the crowd asked that everyone treat officers with respect. Many protesters thanked officers for ensuring a peaceful protest. Some officers responded with gratitude. “Thank you for being here. We love you guys,” one said.

After Brown promoted the protest with a video on Facebook, support came pouring in. So too, did naysayers. Some white men responded with threatening rhetoric or racial slurs.

And some of those in the area shouted at the protesters as they planned to begin. A man in a pickup truck just drove past as protesters began to show up yelling “Donald Trump, Donald Trump.”

Brown encouraged all of her followers to “rise above.” Most did. However, when some protesters spotted people posted across Duvall Highway yelling “Blue lives matter” and flying a President Trump campaign flag, they shouted expletives.

It’s unclear how many lawmakers representing Pasadena or nearby jurisdictions attended the protest. Only Del. Heather Bagnall, D-Arnold, spoke to the crowd. But some Republican elected officials representing Pasadena — all white — spoke with The Capital ahead of the protest.

Del. Nic Kipke, leader of the Republican minority in the House of Delegates, said he could not attend, for he just tested positive for COVID-19 and has to quarantine for two weeks. The disease caused by the respiratory coronavirus has killed at least 2,616 Marylanders and infected 57,000 more. There is still a ban on large gatherings and masks are encouraged. Most protesters Saturday wore face coverings.

Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, said Friday he was conflicted about whether to attend, citing the ban on mass gatherings. Both he and Kipke expressed support for the protest and the cause behind it, discouraged violence and denounced hateful rhetoric circulating online.

“Anybody who speaks with racial slurs is not representative of this community and they need to do some soul searching and realize that we’re all human..." Kipke said. “Comments like those are disgusting and our community rejects them wholeheartedly.”

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, a Republican representing Pasadena in Annapolis, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Meanwhile, Del. Brian Chilsolm, a Severna Park Republican who represents much of Pasadena, expressed support for free speech but also concern about “outsiders." He did not say whether he planned to attend.

While Kipke and Volke were adamant that racism has no place in Pasadena, many black protesters spoke of experiencing it often and feeling uncomfortable walking around their own communities because the color of their skin.

“When I lived here seeing Confederate flags being flown proudly was almost a daily occurrence," said Summer Carter, 36.

She moved not long ago from near Fort Smallwood Circle to Gambrills after her daughter graduated from Northeast, where she said she was subjected to racism. “I almost never felt like I belonged," added Carter, who is black.

And the Pasadena ZIP code 21122 had the most reports of hate bias incidents across the jurisdictions that provided data to Maryland State Police in 2018, the agency’s latest bias report. Fourteen counties and Baltimore City reported incidents, while nine counties reported zero or did not report data.

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“I think it’s really messed up that people don’t feel comfortable in their own homes, in their communities,” said Pasadena-resident Matt Hartlage. The 28-year-old, who is white, attended the protest with friends and family and carried a sign that read “Raise anti-racist kids."

“We want people to teach their kids right," Hartlage added.

Back at the soccer field after the walk during which protesters spanned an entire block, participants were given pizza slices and refreshments. They were encouraged to meet their neighbors.

George Damon, 61, approached Lateesha Brown and told her he was moved by her remarks earlier. The white Pasadena resident said he’d been standing by watching the civil rights struggle for decades and couldn’t take it anymore. Today and here-forth, he said, not participating is unacceptable. “I’m getting up off my behind and off the sidelines.”

“I think it starts with indifference,” Lateesha Brown told Damon.

Such interactions, the sheer number of protesters and the diversity of the crowd was uplifting to many. Some said they were surprised, others left speechless.

“I believe we’re making history," Carter said.

Staff reporter Olivia Sanchez contributed to this story.

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