Call to peace

Marion Police Chief John Clair and others call for peace at a Sunday press conference. Also pictured are David Sparks and the Rev. John Graham. 

Community leaders and protest organizers are calling for peace ahead of a second planned rally supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. On July 3, marchers will join with supporters of the LGBTQ community to rally for change in Marion and Smyth County.

During a Sunday press conference at the Marion Police Department, Chief John Clair quoted American philosopher and poet Ralph Emmerson, who said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

“I would ask this community to take the time to express the mutual love and respect for one another that I'm confident lies within us and reject any and all acts of aggression so that future events in Marion may unfold with a more respectful and compassionate tone,” he said.

He issued a personal plea for incendiary commentary and personal acts of aggression to end, “so this community might have the opportunity to heal and engage in rational exchange.”

Sheriff Chip Shuler, who was unable to make the press conference, said on Monday that he also prayed for peace.

“I urge for a peaceful protest,” he said. “I hope we have no violence and I'm hoping everybody will get along. That's all I can ask for.”

Tensions have been high in the community following a June 13 rally and march supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Protests in other parts of the nation have at times turned into violent riots, leaving some local residents fearing that the movement could bring similar aggression to their community.

The Marion march protesting racial injustice and police brutality was mostly peaceable save for a confrontation between protesters and counter-protesters in front of the courthouse, where heated verbal exchanges took place.

At the courthouse, the group of counter-protesters gathered on the lawn near the monument for the Confederate dead. The gathering is believed to have been fueled by social media rumors warning that the protesters planned to tear the statue down.

During the press conference, 17-year-old organizer Travon Brown said, “We, as a community, need to come together. I did not want to destroy your statue. When I came to do my protest I wanted our voice to be heard, I wanted action behind it.”

Mountain View United Methodist Church Pastor John Graham, who also serves as the clerk of Smyth County Circuit Court, explained why he felt action was necessary.

As a pastor, he said, he wished every community in America was free from racism, prejudice, intimidation, violence and injustices.

“But if that's all we do, as sincere as we may be, then we're just wishful thinking,” he said. “As people of faith, we're called to act, to do something. There's no book of the Bible called 'The Wishes of the Apostles.' It's our acts which stand the test of time.”

He said the prophet Micah is a reminder that people of faith are called to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

Hours after the June 13 protest concluded, the Marion PD received reports of a burning cross in Brown's yard. The investigation has since been turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“You can always talk to me,” Brown said. “You can always just ask me what is this movement about. You don't have to burn a cross in my yard.”

Brown said he would not let the incident deter him.

“Quite frankly, that's not going to stop me from making this movement happen. That's only going to make me go stronger and harder for my community.”

The Marion PD and Smyth County Sheriff's Office are still providing local support in the investigation. The FBI is not releasing any information on the case at this time.

Both Brown and fellow protest organizer David Sparks, 21, called for peaceful conversation.

“My cross burning, I really, really just, I want to talk to the person who did it. I want to ask them why did they do it. I want to know why they did it,” Brown said. “We can sit down and have a conversation.”

Sparks said it was no secret the community needed to see change.

“It's up to us to come together and make that change and whoever disagrees, I would encourage them to try to come and have that conversation, just a peaceful conversation, so we can all be on the same page and adapt to that change.”

Graham said the path forward may not be clear, but he knew it involved two things. First, he said, the community would have to listen to the voices in the black community, and listen to understand. Secondly, he said, “The way forward is rooted in love.”

“The way forward is rooted in love. Love and respect to these young men who have just spoken. Love and respect to the officers, who have a very difficult job, as well. The way forward is rooted in love. If we want healing, if we want our community to be marked with peace and justice, then we've got to listen. And love.”

The July 3 rally is scheduled to kick off at 2 p.m. at the Farmer's Market Pavilion in Marion. Marchers are asked to bring water and snacks and to wear a face mask.

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