#AmINext? On a picture perfect day in downtown Grand Rapids, four 16-year old students caught the attention and respect of our community. Their goal was a peaceful assembly of citizens, city officials, activists, and police to promote understanding and unity in a time of racial tension and mistrust. National cases such as the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a shooting in a St. Paul, Minn. suburb involving victim Philando Castile, and the Dallas killings of five police officers inspired the students to take action.
The young organizers of #4Unity, Danielle McMillon and Je’Ana Mason of Forest Hills Northern High School, Eugene Brown of Union High School, and Desiree Taggart of Grand Rapids Montessori, had a common goal of giving a platform for solutions to address racial disparity and violence, especially pertaining to policing in urban communities. “We are tired of the hate, violence, and pain. We cannot continue to LIVE in fear. We are the future generation with a question for you…#AmINext?.”
It is a huge credit to these young people, after dealing with months of nasty media coverage, social media repeatedly calling for protest, and fear induced by agitators that they chose to reach out in peace. Theirs was a message of unity. Instead of adding to the violent rhetoric, they planned an assembly based on educating people on their rights and ways to be part of the solution.
While initially planning their rally using a Black Lives Matter theme, the organizers were contacted by the group asking that they do not connect the assembly with BLM. The #4Unity organizers then changed the name to #AmINext #4Unity in order to have a separate identity. In a statement Thursday the BLM clearly distanced themselves stating, “Before anyone gets their ‘peace’ (which has long become code for silence, passivity, compliance and respectability), we deserve justice. Before talks of unity, we must speak openly about how Black and Brown communities are viciously torn apart by systems and institutions of injustice and violence.”
The Peace Assembly was run very professionally. Rose Parks Circle was filled with supporters and many brought signs to express their views and concerns. Speakers included Elizabeth White, representing the Mayor’s office, who offered a moment of silence to remember those we have lost to violence. Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky shared thoughts on working together for the greater good. Rahinsky stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. He asked those in attendance to “join police in their role to be part of the change you wish to see.” Inspiration and poetry were shared by Eugene Brown and Sara Brooks.
The most informative talk was given by Attorney Anthony Green who, along with the ACLU, spoke on a citizen’s rights and responsibilities when having encounters with member of law enforcement. Greene emphasized a person’s responsibility not to escalate a situation. He also pointed out that many officers are now equipped with recording technology that can work to a citizen’s benefit. It is your right to clearly state your right to counsel or to state that you do not give your consent to a search where there is no probable cause. Communication and cool heads can avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Christy Buck, Executive Director of the Mental Health Foundation, shared real solutions with the crowd such as the “Be Nice” campaign. “For every action,” said Buck, “you will cause others to think, act, and feel.” NICE is an acronym for Notice, Invite, Challenge, Empower. Everyone needs to do something if we want to see real change.
As professional and peaceful as the assembly was, it was unfortunate that members of Black Lives Matter presented themselves in front of the stage. Where peace and unity were being offered, these silent protesters were a distraction. Many of their signs were inflammatory, such as “Police Do Not Protect, They Harm” and “Unity Before Justice is Insulting.” When they stood with their large signs and black tape across their mouths, they blocked the view of those on the stage. As they stated they wanted no affiliation with #4Unity, it is questionable why they were even there.
To conclude the assembly Pastor Dennis and Dr. E. Jean McMurray bathed the event in pray, lifting up women, men, and children. As the “amens” rang out, Pastor Jermone Glenn gave an impassioned close that emphasized that with unity, “You will NOT be next,” relying on the power of God to let justice prevail.
The inaugural #AmINext #4Unity Peace Assembly was a success. Peace was evident. Unity was advanced. The need and desire for more communication was heightened. Those in attendance were hugging and talking. The officers were shaking hands all around. Danielle, Eugene, Desiree, and Je expressed their frustration to the community; however, their courage to step out in peace makes these young men and women wise beyond their years. On Saturday afternoon the light rose above the darkness. The #4Unity organizers are planning for more peace assemblies in the future. For more information, you can go to their website at WWW.AMINEXT.LIFE or #AmINext on Facebook.
Kathy has been writing for WKTV Kentwood Now for 3 years. She has been married for 28 years to her wonderful husband, Duke. Together they have 2 children, Emily and Daniel. In her free time she enjoys volunteering with the Casting Bread Mobile Food Pantry at Kentwood Christian Church, making sandwiches at Kids Food Basket, and leading Ladies Bible Study on Thursday nights. Writing has been her passion since elementary school and she loves to write about how others enjoy what they are passionate about!