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Spotsylvania coalition continues push for equality
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Spotsylvania coalition continues push for equality

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A simple proclamation at the beginning of the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors meeting last week was a big deal to a group of area ministers who have been working for months with area leaders on social justice issues.

Board Chairman Gary Skinner read the proclamation, which supports nondiscrimination and the U.S. Constitution’s “promise of the equality of all persons regardless of race, religion, or ethnic origin.” The proclamation also states that the board will “promote cultural understanding” and that it “commits to addressing and working to eliminate intolerance and discrimination” in the community.

“We’ve been talking about this for a while,” Mozett Petway, a pastor at House of Blessings Church and the president of the Spotsylvania County chapter of the NAACP, said in an interview prior to the meeting.

Petway and other area ministers and pastors formed a coalition while protests sprung up across the United States, including in the Fredericksburg area, following the videotaped death of George Floyd Jr. during an arrest by a Minnesota police officer on May 25.

The coalition started with a group of Black ministers and the NAACP, but has grown to include members from a variety of cultural backgrounds and denominations. They want to push for change through education and dialogue.

Protests play a role and “are important,” Petway said. But the coalition has followed a spiritual approach while also going directly to the sources, in this case the county sheriff and the supervisors, to talk about issues and find ways to make real improvements.

Coalition members have met several times with Supervisors Skinner and Chris Yakabouski and Sheriff Roger Harris since the country erupted with anger and violence in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

Tuesday’s proclamation was a culmination of the coalition’s goal of creating real changes to a system members see as systemically sick with racism.

Petway and fellow coalition leader the Rev. Charles Wormley spoke at the meeting before the vote, imploring the supervisors to show the community they support equality for all.

During supervisor’s updates, shortly after the board approved the proclamation, Supervisor David Ross thanked the coalition for their “civil action” and “leadership,” and noted the 1960s civil rights movement was largely led by religious leaders in African American communities.

He then read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Supervisor Deborah Frazier, the first Black representative on the board, said she was “very proud that this board came together” to “send the message that we care.”

Coalition members and the sheriff have said their meetings also have proven beneficial.

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From the beginning, the sheriff has publicly supported protesters and denounced police actions that led to the death of Floyd.

The coalition is happy with Harris and his policies and does not support dismantling the police. But it wants to ensure the sheriff and county institute policies and guidelines that address their concerns and have teeth.

“This is a sheriff who is doing the right things,” Petway said in a recent interview. Even so, he and other coalition members said they felt a need to meet with the sheriff to ensure policies are adequate and will stay in place. “We feel that we’re making progress.”

Harris said he had already instituted many of the programs the coalition has highlighted, but also pointed out that the discussions have helped everyone involved.

“We have made strides with the coalition,” said the sheriff.

The sheriff has made adjustments to his policies since meeting with coalition members, such as updating his office’s “duty to intervene” policy and ramping up de-escalation training. He also pointed out that he has always stressed community relationships and making sure officers use force only if necessary.

“I have never allowed abuse of power,” he said. “That’s against everything I stand for.”

Harris noted he also has used a review board for use-of-force cases. Coalition members said they will now be part of the review board.

“I’m doing my best to keep from what’s happened” in other localities, Harris said.

Harris said he also pointed out important aspects to the coalition members: future sheriffs will be free to institute their policies, regardless of what he puts in writing; and that state lawmakers are the ones who establish policies.

“We’re watching legislators in Virginia,” Petway said.

Coalition members said they also have learned how the racial strife has affected law enforcement officials. The sheriff and his staff told the coalition in meetings that younger deputies “are frightened” about public perception, possibly losing their jobs and being sued personally.

Wormley said the meetings showed the coalition there are good law enforcement officers who want to make their communities better places to live.

“We’re beginning to see both sides of it,” he said.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

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