Under a pavilion, the song “Where is the Love?” echoed across the lawn of Western Regional Park in Cooksville on Thursday evening as community members gathered to rally against systemic racism and police brutality.
Hundreds of Howard County residents, most with signs in tow, filled a green area of the Western Howard County park to listen as 10 speakers discussed their experiences.
Protesters across the state and the country have gathered since the end of May to express their anger over the death of George Floyd on May 25. Floyd, a black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground by his neck for nearly 9 minutes.
The rally, originally organized by Jay Hackett and Erin Cutroneo, came to be after Hackett created HoCo United, a Facebook group specifically created for the western part of the county.
“I felt there should be a protest in Western Howard County because that’s where the issue lies,” said Hackett, who is black. “A lot of people in the western part of the county aren’t having the conversation.”
Hackett, who is a local rapper, has used his music platform to refer to racism he’s seen in the western part of the county and at Glenelg High School. In one of his songs, he refers to the May 2018 incident where four Glenelg High students painted swastikas and racial graffiti on the school’s campus. He sees the remnants of those actions and the ingrained cultural problems that led to the incident as a problem that needs to be addressed.
This is the second rally in Howard County in the past three weeks, after a group of 17 high school and college students organized the largest protest in Howard County history on June 2 in Columbia.
Cutroneo said it was important for the protests to happen across the county, not just in Columbia.
“You change and grow as you grow up and I feel a sense of urgency right now. It shouldn’t have taken this long. There’s always room to change your community. That’s what I’m hoping to help with,” said Cutroneo, who is white.
“I want to be there as an ally; our role [as white people] is a supporting hand.”
Many of the speakers at Thursday’s rally centered their remarks on educational reform.
Praxie Osong, one of the speakers and a 2010 graduate of River Hill High School, told the story about how her senior year was eclipsed by multiple racist incidents. She called for curriculum in the county to add a social justice lens and to teach black history as part of American history.
Dominique Tolbert, a Glenelg High alumna and a rally organizer, spoke about how people could be effective allies during this time.
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“If your parents say something out of turn, correct them. You can respectfully educate your parents,” Tolbert said. “Being an ally is correcting people even when it’s uncomfortable.”
She also discussed how difficult it was to grow up black in Western Howard County
“There are places I won’t go to in Howard County at night because I’m worried about my safety,” she said. “When I step into a room, people see my blacknesss first. They don’t see my multiple degrees.”
Hackett said one of his goals for the rally is to see local officials become more engaged in the conversations happening around the county. He said he specifically wished County Executive Calvin Ball would take a more active role as the first black county executive in Howard.
“[Ball] has the power to do many things,” Hackett said after seeing Ball at the June 2 protest. “There’s more he can do besides posting on Facebook.”
Hackett sees engagement with local officials as the path for change within Howard County.
“It’s one thing to talk the talk, but it’s another thing to be out here on the streets. We need [Ball] out on these streets,” Hackett said.