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Bel Air protesters chant, ‘I can’t breathe,’ call for police to ‘take a knee’

A couple hundred people rallied in front of the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air in support of Black Lives Matter.

With chants of “I can’t breathe,” “hands up, don’t shoot” and “take a knee,” protesters in Bel Air spoke out against the many cases in which unarmed black Americans have died at the hands of police — including the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

An estimated 200 people gathered in front of the Harford County Courthouse around 1 p.m. Wednesday. People held signs, chanted and heard one speaker after another issue calls for change in the relationship between police and the black community, both in Harford County and throughout the U.S.

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People cheered in support of the speakers.

The rally was held in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and meant to be against racial profiling, discrimination and police brutality, according to coordinator Annika Holm, 17, of Churchville.

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It is the second rally to happen in Harford County this week, following a demonstration in Edgewood Sunday evening. More were planned for the coming days, including an event scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, also at the courthouse in Bel Air.

Additional protests are planned for the weekend, including a “car caravan” past all local police stations and rallies in Havre de Grace, all of which are set to happen Saturday and in support of Black Lives Matter, according to an event page on Facebook.

The Wednesday crowd, as well as the speakers, included many teenagers and young adults, as well as older adults and young children. The majority of people wore masks as protection against the coronavirus pandemic, although much of the crowd stood close together on the courthouse grounds and on Main Street.

Others stood around the edges of the crowd, listening to the speakers and holding up signs. Some people walked through the gathering handing out bottles of water and collecting trash. Main Street was closed from Churchville Road to north of Lee Street.

Bel Air Police officers, including bicycle and motorcycle officers, stood nearby, observing the rally, which was across the street from the Harford County Sheriff’s Office headquarters. A few Sheriff’s Office personnel stood outside the front entrance, also observing.

Heidi and Paul Chuffo, of Bel Air, attended with their children, 8-year-old Max and 5-year-old Maya. Max held a sign saying “black lives matter,” while Maya sat on her father’s shoulders. Heidi Chuffo also held protest signs.

“I just think it’s really important to raise anti-racist children,” Heidi Chuffo said.

She said she was glad to see such a large crowd but had “mixed feelings” about Main Street being closed. She noted that it made it easier for people to engage in social distancing, but passing motorists would not be able to see the rally.

“They should use their voices to protect other people,” Chuffo said when asked what she wanted her children to take away from the event.

Baltimore resident Steve Jones attended the rally with his daughter. Jones said he wants his daughter to see how she can “have a positive experience by protesting.”

Jones said the attendance in Bel Air was not as large as demonstrations that have happened in Baltimore this week, “but I’m glad that everybody came out, either way, and the weather blessed us.”

Maconio Morton Jr., 21, of Edgewood, said he came out “to see the change in everyone’s attitudes or mind frame of thinking.” The death of Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 has prompted nationwide outrage and multiple protests involving multi-racial crowds in cities all over the U.S.

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Many demonstrations have become violent, with clashes between civilians and police, plus there has been widespread looting, property destruction and arson, as well as incidents in which people have been seriously hurt or killed.

The demonstration in Bel Air was peaceful, although participants turned toward the Sheriff’s Office later in the day, chanting loudly and demanding police outside the building “take a knee” in solidarity.

“It’s kind of nice, knowing that there are people that actually care about your life,” said Morton, who is black. “At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter who you are.”

Protestors chant 'I can't breathe' while gathered in front of the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air, facing the Harford County Sheriff's Office headquarters during a rally in support of Black Lives Matter on Wednesday.
Protestors chant 'I can't breathe' while gathered in front of the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air, facing the Harford County Sheriff's Office headquarters during a rally in support of Black Lives Matter on Wednesday. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

‘Keep using your voice’

A number of downtown Bel Air businesses were open, including a few restaurants offering outdoor dining as part of the state’s first phase of reopening during the pandemic. One speaker called out those eating at restaurants within sight of the courthouse, urging them to support citizen movements working to end deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement — at least one diner could be seen applauding as people spoke during the rally.

One speaker described law enforcement as “a racist institution” and urged people to “keep voting, keep donating [to causes], keep using your voice."

Another person emphasized that law enforcement is necessary in society, but she urged officers to be “vigilant, cautions and temperate” when interacting with citizens.

Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore walked along Main Street, talking with demonstrators, his officers and checking in with business operators. He described the protesters as “peaceful.”

“They have a right to express their First Amendment rights, and we’re here to protect all the citizens — and to prevent serious disruptions,” Moore said.

K!d Casper, one of the speakers who is a podcaster and Christian rapper, closed out the program around 3 p.m. with a lengthy prayer.

He prayed for people to “sow the seeds of love and let these seeds grow into fruit, vegetables, trees — things that we can use to feed the next generation, things we can use to feed black, brown, white.”

A few hundred people rallied in Bel Air near the Harford County Sheriff's Office in support of Black Lives Matter asking police to join them and "take a knee."

‘Take a knee’

Following Casper’s remarks, the crowd was encouraged to turn toward the Sheriff’s Office headquarters. People responded, turning around, holding their protest signs and chanting slogans such as “no racist police,” “hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe.”

They also invoked Floyd’s name and that of Breonna Taylor, a health care worker who lived in Louisville, Kentucky. Taylor, 26, was shot and killed by police while in her home March 13, hit about eight times by return fire after her boyfriend shot at officers whom he thought were intruders.

A segment of the protesters crossed Main Street and approached the Sheriff’s Office building, holding their signs and chanting, “I can’t breathe” as they marched up to a line of yellow tape a short distance before the main entrance.

Havre de Grace Police Chief Teresa Walter and other representatives of her department were among the law enforcement personnel outside the front entrance. Walter could be seen briefly talking with one demonstrator.

The protesters exhorted police to “take a knee” and show solidarity with them — officers in a number of cities, including Baltimore, have done so. That was not the case in Bel Air, though. Police watched the demonstrators for several minutes and then went inside the Sheriff’s Office building. The crowd booed in response, and a number of people laid their protest signs near the entrance.

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Cristie Hopkins, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, later confirmed in an email that “no one from the HCSO took a knee today,” and that she anticipates Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler will make a statement after the rally Thursday.

The sheriff has been strongly critical of those who take a knee in protest. He said in 2017 that he would get rid of all of his Baltimore Ravens merchandise after Ravens players kneeled during the playing of the National Anthem in a protest against police brutality.

“Certainly I would not be tolerant of a deputy who chose to kneel,” Gahler said at the time when asked his thoughts on Sheriff’s Office personnel taking a knee during the anthem.

Holm, the rally coordinator, said she was not expecting people to shift across the street and confront police. She said she was “very happy” with the turnout at the event, which she said she put together after talking with friends who are black about doing a rally in support of Black Lives Matter.

“They said, ‘Go for it,’” recalled Holm, who noted that she is not with any specific activist group — a friend of hers is coordinating the rally on Thursday.

The crowd thinned out afterward as many people walked back to their vehicles. Richard Lynch, co-owner of the Buontempo Bros. restaurant at Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, stepped out, wearing a mask, and watched people head up the street.

He praised the demonstrators for being peaceful and exercising their First and Fourth Amendment rights, saying, “Good for them.”

Disturbance at garage

A call about a disturbance at the nearby Hickory Avenue parking garage could be heard over the radio of one Bel Air bike officer, who responded to the garage with several others.

They encountered Anita Sutton, of Edgewood, her 17-year-old daughter, Melanie, and two other young women who reported a group of men shouted racial slurs at them.

An angered Anita Sutton told The Aegis that the men were on an upper level of the garage and called out to her group, mocking the “I can’t breathe” protest chant and calling them the N-word — Sutton and her group included black and white people.

She accused police and a number of white bystanders, people who had been at the rally, of not doing anything to help — officers could be seen going into the garage after speaking with Sutton. She said Black Lives Matter is “a fad” for people who attend rallies and say they will be allies to the black community but do not step up when incidents such as that which befell her and her daughter happen.

Melanie Sutton, an Edgewood High School student, described the BLM movement as real life for her. Sutton, who broke into tears as she recounted the incident at the garage, vowed to speak about her experience at Thursday’s rally.

“I am tired of having to live in fear every day,” she said.

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