“It was a struggle growing up a person of color in Westmoreland,” Liz Horner admitted to the crowd of over 100 supporters gathered on the Village Green Saturday afternoon. “Don’t get me wrong. I love all you guys for coming out here…but it’s been hard.”
The crowd fell silent.
“In elementary school, I was told I could not play tag because I wasn’t white,” she looked at the prepared statements on her phone, took a deep breath and began again.” In high school, I was called ‘the N-word,’ I had to brush it off because I knew I was different, and I wouldn’t fit in if I didn’t.”
The large circle of people tightened to move in closer to her.
“In class, they used me as the example of Jim Crow laws, and segregation,…and slaves….and everything.”
Her voice broke as she hung her head.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” Jessica Grande cut through the silence.
“My heart broke,” Jessica told me later. “I saw a beautiful young lady at the same age as my oldest son. I pictured a little 5-year-old girl crying because she couldn’t play with the other children because she was black, and they didn’t want to touch the ‘the black girl.’”
Jessica ran up and embraced her.
“I thought I have to do something right now,” she explained. “Tears were in her eyes; tears were in mine. I apologized to her for what she had to endure. Even though I didn’t do it to her, I felt her pain. I was disgusted that anyone could treat her so badly. I felt really connected to her at that moment. I had to hug her, I had to act, to show her love!”
“We need to do a better job to protect the children who look just like me,” Liz said.
Dawson Cook nodded when she said that.
“I have a bunch of younger siblings of color,” he told me afterward. “I want to be part of making a change because their lives matter, black lives matter.”
He held up his BLM sign as cars drove by and honked their horn in approval.
“You have to stop being quiet and just speak up,” he said. I’ve interviewed Dawson before. He is a good kid who stands up for what’s right, whether it’s popular or not.
“Westmoreland is a majority white town,” Liz pointed out. “but I want the people here to know that we have been unheard for so many years, and we are tired, so tired. I am doing this for my younger siblings who are also black…it’s extremely hard.”
Despite her youth, Horner, at times, seemed as weary and burdened with history as she was passionate and determined.
“We’re tired of making hashtags and trying to convince you that black lives matter,” she sighed. “We are exhausted. We are tired of dying.”
“The way the black community has been treated is appalling. It’s sickening. Things need to change, and that starts with you,” Emily Senior said, gesturing towards the crowd.
She exhorted the crowd to do what’s right and to fight for what’s right.
“This is our time; this is our future,” she said. “We’re living on the same planet together. It’s time for peace. It’s time for compassion and love. It’s time for respect!”
With each word, the enthusiasm of the crowd grew.
“It’s time for a new world because this isn’t right anymore,” she cried. “Let your voices be heard! Black Lives Matter!”
The crowd roared as traffic on Main Street honked their horns in support.
“As a black man growing up in America, the past week has awakened me,” Liz’s brother Derrick Owens said, taking the bull horn. “I look at this crowd and see nothing but white people.”
He pointed out how there were only three black people, and one of them was him.
“But that’s the thing that’s going to change America,” he said. “All of us coming together and understanding we are one human race.”
Derrick led the crowd in now-famous chants of, “Black Lives Matter!, No Justice, No Peace!,” and, “Say his name, George Floyd!” as we marched across Route 233, down Main Street and back to our cars at the Westmoreland Town Hall.
New York State Police and Oneida County Sheriff’s Deputies were on hand to assist us in crossing the road and to ensure against any possible acts of racist backlash. There were none and no hecklers.
Before the event began, I talked to one of the State Troopers assigned to protect us. He spoke about believing in justice and equal treatment for everyone. I intended to find him afterward to talk to him more, but I didn’t get the chance. So I made a mental note to myself to acknowledge that it was encouraging to have that interaction before the event began.
By the time we all reached the parking lot, the positive energy was electrifying. A minority group that had been silenced in our town finally found their voice and were being heard.
Jen DeWeerth pointed out the importance of it being an election year and how everyone needed to be registered to vote.
“It’s not enough for us to sit on our couches and post and tweet, we must stand up and be visible,” Michelle Fredsell reminded everyone. “We must keep protesting until we see a change until we see legislation to ensure that people are treated fairly.”
Michelle said that she was happy to see that Governor Andrew Cuomo had put forth the “Say Their Name” legislative reform agenda the day before.
“Their challenge to all of us to take action to make a change clearly had an impact,” Alane Varga said after the event. “The young people did a great job
organizing. Their passion,
commitment, and willingness to share their experiences made a difference.”
“It’s easy for people to say that racism-or homophobia, for that matter-don’t happen here,” my partner Jim observed on the way home. “If they just listen to people who are black, or gay, or from any other minority group to share their experiences, they’d find out they were wrong. Maybe now they’ll start asking.”
Before we dispersed, Liz Horner asked everyone to stop and observe eight minutes and forty-six seconds of silence because that was the length of time it took George Floyd to suffocate pinned under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin.
At first, I tried to hold my breath to see what it would feel like, but there’s no way to imagine the fear and pain, so I breathed again.
Then I thought about something I had seen on Facebook earlier in the week. Herb Hand, who graduated a year before me from Westmoreland High School, is Co-Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach for the football team at the University of Texas. Westmoreland is a football town, so he is very well-respected by the people here and has a local following on social media.
On his Facebook post, he talked about how he now truly understood what white privilege means.
“There is a time to listen, and there is a time to speak,” he wrote. “I’ve listened. Now it’s time to talk. #BlackLivesMatter.”
I hoped his words resonated with the people in this town who needed to hear them.
In those eight minutes and forty-six seconds, I also thought about how I was bullied all through school because I’m gay. When I was their age, I came out publicly in the Observer-Dispatch. I know what it’s like to live in this town and stand up for something that’s right but threatens people who are used to looking down on you for it. Being the first one in town to speak out is harder, scarier, but more exhilarating than I can describe. Liz, Derrick, and Emily are finding out.
I looked at them, standing together stoic and resolute, the bravest people in town.
“I never thought I could be a leader,” Liz had told me earlier. “But here I am, leading all these great supportive people in the town of Westmoreland.”
“Here you are,” I thought. “Here you all are. A new generation of leaders emerging at exactly the right time. The heroes we need.”
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein