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An offer to mediate a heated battle between neighbors across racial and political lines in Harford County | COMMENTARY

Chris Perkins first raised the Black Lives Matter flag at his Harford County home after white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, Va. in 2017.
Chris Perkins first raised the Black Lives Matter flag at his Harford County home after white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, Va. in 2017. (Baltimore Sun staff)

George Floyd’s horrible death on May 25, 2020, affected Chris Perkins and other Black men in deeply personal and traumatic ways. They could easily see themselves in Floyd, and I had to keep that in mind as Perkins described what happened over the last year in his predominantly white neighborhood in Harford County.

Floyd’s death was the first thing Perkins mentioned after he contacted me.

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“George Floyd was murdered, and I probably spent about five days in a funk after watching him be murdered,” Perkins said, with anger, sadness and vulnerability in his voice. “I cried for five days over Floyd. My emotions were raw.”

Everything that followed — a profane confrontation with a Donald Trump-supporting, Confederate flag-flying neighbor; a fight with a postal carrier; a confrontation with another Trump supporter from around the corner; a couple of nights in jail — flowed in some way from Floyd’s death and Perkins’ anger about it. This story about America’s racial-political fault line is from Perkins’ perspective because others declined to discuss their encounters with him. (One neighbor said, “That’s in the past,” when I asked about an incident from last summer.)

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Chris Perkins is a 53-year-old native of West Baltimore, a Navy veteran, former police officer and correctional officer. He is now self-employed in heating and air conditioning.

Nine years ago, when Perkins and his wife, Kimberly, toured a house for sale in Joppa, the interracial couple noticed a neighbor’s Confederate flag. But the banner of white supremacy did not stop them from buying the home.

“I guess you could say I didn’t think that people would see us or treat us as different,” Kim Perkins said. “And before Trump, people mostly didn’t.”

In 2017, Chris Perkins raised a Black Lives Matter flag after the march of white supremacists on Charlottesville, Virginia. For a time, the divide between neighbors was stark but unspoken.

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But last June, Chris Perkins said, he noticed the neighbor with the Confederate flag oddly staring at him when both men were outdoors. The staring prompted Perkins to confront the neighbor. The two men met in the middle of their street, had words, then walked away. “It was a standoff,” Perkins recalled.

The neighbor later took down the Confederate banner and replaced it with a Trump flag.

Over the next six weeks, Perkins and his wife said something unusual happened with deliveries to their mailbox, located at the end of their driveway. The mailbox was left open, exposing contents to wind and rain, and packages were left on the ground by the mailbox instead of at the front door.

Chris Perkins came to see something sinister at play — that his postal carrier knew of his confrontation with the Confederate flag-flying neighbor, sympathized with him and intentionally tried to sabotage his mail. The Perkinses say they complained to an area postmaster, but the deliveries continued to be unsatisfactory.

In July, Chris Perkins confronted the postal carrier. The two men argued, and the argument escalated into a fight, with Perkins landing punches that led to second-degree misdemeanor assault charges. (Perkins claims he only threw punches after the postal carrier spit on him; the carrier denied that.)

In March, after a trial, a District Court judge found Perkins guilty, suspended a three-year jail sentence and placed him on probation. The case has been appealed to Harford County Circuit Court, according to Perkins’ attorney, Cassandra Beverly.

The assault on the postal carrier provoked online chatter among neighbors, most of it outraged and angry, with one person calling Perkins a “race baiter,” another suggesting he “needed a good ole fashion Harford County ass whooping.’”

In September, to make their support of racial equity clear to neighbors, the Perkinses threw a BLM party on their front lawn, attended mostly by white female friends and their children — a concession, Chris Perkins said, to the “white frailty and comfort” of his neighbors.

During the party, a man driving an all-terrain vehicle with a Trump flag stopped in front of the Perkinses’ home. Chris Perkins did not know the man. He asked why he would parade his Trump devotion at a home celebrating the BLM movement. The conversation became a confrontation and soured the party.

Some months later, the same man accused Perkins of assault with a weed trimmer. The man had driven his ATV from his home around the corner past Perkins while he was doing yard work, and the two had words again. Perkins called the man a racist; he denied assaulting him.

At some point after that, a judge ordered Perkins to stay away from the man with the ATV.

A few months later, Harford County deputies stopped Perkins as he drove by the man’s house and charged him with violating the peace order by shouting angry words at the man as he stood in his driveway.

It’s easy to see Chris Perkins’ legal problems as self-inflicted, but he’s adamant that, in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder, he was provoked — by the Confederate flag and odd stares, by the weird mail deliveries, by white neighors who antagonized him by yelling, “Black lives don’t matter,” or “All lives matter” as they passed by, and by one who came purposefully from around the corner with his Trump flag.

I don’t know where this goes from here. My instinct was to suggest mediation, grownup discussions aimed at building a bridge over the racialized divide. But, in these fraught times, with everyone so entrenched, that idea seems quaint, and perhap a non-starter.

And yet, I am willing to arrange an effort at conciliation — if both the Perkinses and their neighbors want it. That’s the only way that happens.

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