Annapolis forum helps healing to begin


ANNAPOLIS -- Jackie Gilmer stood before the crowd sitting in the pews last night at the First Baptist Church, her voice shaking as she spoke.

"I feel Rodney King's fury," she said. "When the verdict came down, I cried. It really hurt me. The only difference between Rodney King and myself is there was a video camera to record what happened."

Ms. Gilmer told the crowd about a beating she said she received at the hands of a police officer 2 1/2 years ago. Then she related her account of four officers surrounding a handcuffed man and one of them beating him with a club.

"This is not just an issue that is isolated in Los Angeles," she said. "This is nationwide."

The people who organized last night's meeting were hoping that people like Ms. Gilmer would show up. They wanted people to tell what was in their hearts.

The idea started with Stephen Turner, an insurance underwriter who likened the King verdict and the subsequent violence in Los Angeles to a wake-up call for himself, the nation and his city. On Wednesday, a jury in Simi Valley, Calif., returned not guilty verdicts against four police officers who had been charged with using excessive force against Mr. King. After the verdict, rioting in Los Angeles claimed 44 lives and caused hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage.

"It just sent a spark through me," Mr. Turner said.

What the city needed, he decided, was a community forum, a chance for people to sit down and talk. He took the idea to Darius Stanton, who works for the city's Office of Community Services and Substance Abuse. That was Thursday.

Last night, about 75 people gathered at the church. They listened politely to panelists who abhored the King verdict, the violence, the racism, the conditions that brought the flames, looting and killing. It was a necessary experience, said Alderman Carl Snowden, D-5th Ward.

"It's a constructive way of allowing the community to ventilate legitimate concerns about racism and police brutality," he said. "We know that the same conditions that exist in Los Angeles, exist in every city, including Annapolis."

The evening hit its high points after the panelists had their say. There was Ms. Gilmer's story, which ended in a plea for help in having her case against the police reopened. Joseph Edward "Sugarfoot" Simms'El, who said he doesn't go to church, preached his own impromptu sermon about how he sees life in Annapolis. He said African-Americans had been brainwashed and white people were the source of their problems.

"You started it," he said. "You started it when you brought our people here."

James Bradford, who is white, heard Mr. Simms'El's words.

"Certainly, it made me feel uncomfortable, but it wouldn't keep me from coming to a second meeting," said Mr. Bradford, who believes some of the solutions to the country's racial problems lie in education. "That's where it's going to change if it's going to change before a revolution."

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